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SAVING MR. BANKS (2013) review

December 15, 2013

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written by: Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith

produced by: Alison Owen, Ian Collie and Phillip Steuer

directed by: John Lee Hancock

rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including some unsettling images)

runtime:  125 min.

U.S. release date: December 13, 2013

 

Just as every movie has a story to tell, there’s also a story behind every movie. “Saving Mr. Banks” sets out to tell the story of how the 1964 classic Disney movie, “Mary Poppins” was made. You’d never know that based on the title, which makes it either more intriguing or a little confusing. There has to be a reason though why such a story warrants a movie and, in this case, learning about Mr. Banks and his relationship to Mary Poppins creator P. L. Travers, tells a behind-the-scenes story that is appropriately sentimental and whimsical, with two lead characters who are both kind of unlikeable.

In 1961, London-based writer Pamela “P.L.” Travers (Emma Thompson) is reminded by her agent (Ronan Vibert) of her growing debt and urges her to reconsider signing over the rights to her character, Mary Poppins, to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), so his studio can make a movie out of her book, which was published in 1934. Disney had been asking her for twenty years and he’s thrilled that Travers has agreed (albeit reluctantly) to fly to Los Angeles to discuss matters of adapting her creation.  The acerbic and cold Travers is greeted by an enthusiastic staff, such as her assigned personal chauffeur, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the composer/lyricist brothers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) Sherman, but she can’t be won over by their happiness and genial manner. After all, she’s arrived with every intention to personally tell Disney that an adaptation is not going to happen.

 

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That presents us with the key conflict of Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay. Disney spends the rest of the movie turning on the charm and sweetly pressuring the writer to sign the dotted line. Not even a personal tour of Disneyland from Walt Disney himself can persuade Travers to budge. She can’t understand why her book needs to be a musical and makes it clear she’ll have absolutely no animation in the movie. She demands that each production meeting be recorded on a tape machine. She can’t stand the thought of Dick Van Dyke being in the movie as well. Disney and his crew are baffled and can’t understand what is holding back Travers from allowing millions of viewers to experience Mary Poppins on the big screen. He’s not used to refusals, obviously.

Throughout the movie, the audience discovers more about Travers than anyone she interacts with in the movie, as she reflects on her childhood in Queensland, Australia. Director John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie” and “The Blind Side”) interweaves chronological flashbacks to 1901, when a young Travers (played by Annie Rose Buckley), nicknamed Ginty, was doted upon by her alcoholic father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), an unsuccessful bank manager. We learn that her mentally-troubled mother (Ruth Wilson) couldn’t look after Travers and her siblings, but she received love and encouragement from her father, even though he was quite unreliable. Because of her parent’s unpredictable nature, she and her siblings were visited by her mother’s sister (Rachel Griffiths), a stern and direct woman who clearly became the inspiration for the nanny who would impact the lives of the Banks family. It also becomes clear that Mr. Banks (the father in her Mary Poppins novels), who spends most of his time working in a  bank (hence the name?), is modeled after her father.

So, the flying, magical nanny of Cherry Tree Lane, who provides order and life lessons to the Banks children, was loosely based on Traver’s own troubled childhood. It becomes clear to us why Travers has reservations about seeing deeply personal characters sing-and-dance to jaunty tunes like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” (not to mention the dancing penguins), but Disney remains perplexed by the difficult Travers.

 

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Of course, “Mary Poppins” became a movie which was well-received by audiences and became one of the most profitable movies released that year. The third act of “Saving Mr. Banks” is all about how Travers eventually agrees to the music, the art direction and everything about the film (although she’s still not too keen on those penguins), after an apologetic Disney appears at her London doorstep.

Whether or not this actually transpired this way, this particular scene remains one of the more memorable and impacting moments of the movie. Hanks and Thompson are at their best here, because at this point, both characters are open and vulnerable about their intentions and perspectives. Before this, Hanks (in his second “Saving” movie) makes a fine Walt Disney (I’ll admit, I had my reservations, but he sold me with his wink of a smile and childlike enthusiasm) who was actually quite interesting because he often came across like a manipulative jerk. Even thous Disney reiterates throughout the movie that he made a promise to his daughters that Mary Poppins will be made into a movie, it’s obvious he’s really seeing dollar signs.

Thompson, on the other hand, delivers a predominately one-note performance up until the end of the third act, when we start to see her convey emotions other than disdain and contempt. Her salty disposition and perpetual stink-face dominated most of the movie, except for a few sequences where she daydreams of her past during one of the Sherman brothers many rehearsals. Yes, eventually she warms up to the contagious music, especially “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, and Thompson is convincing there, but it seems more like a formulaic element of the script, rather than earned character development.

 

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Despite the undertones of corporate greed vs. artistic integrity and the David and Goliath fight one woman has against a group of men, “Saving Mr. Banks” is an entertaining movie that is both funny and touching. Much of the film’s success rests on the cast. Even though Thompson’s portrayal borders on grating (I blame the script for that), it is fun to see Whitford, Schwartzman and Novak dance around the studio as they sell their songs to Travers and Disney.

Although Hancock’s back-and-forth between an emotional and challenging 1961 and a the sunny Hollywood of 1901 provides a jarring tonal shift that takes some getting used to, the director definitely captures each period in a confidant manner. I especially enjoyed seeing Disneyland and Los Angeles of the early 60s, with all the automobiles, fashion and architecture evoking the time fittingly. Just looking back at how “Mary Poppins” eventually came together, with the Shermans slaving over their songs (I highly recommend checking out the 2009 documentary “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story”, for more of their story) is a delight in and of itself.

Like last year’s “Hitchcock” did for “Psycho”, “Saving Mr. Banks” offers an interesting look at what it took to make a beloved classic, even before anyone yelled, “Action!”. It wasn’t that pretty, nor was it easy and certain people weren’t always on their best behavior, but the end result became timeless.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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