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Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

| December 6, 2013 | 0 Comments

It is reasonable to assume that since Saving Mr. Banks is a production from Walt Disney Pictures and features a story involving Uncle Walt himself that the film would come off as an act of shameless self-congratulations. In a way, it does, but the story told here is much better and far more meaningful than its bouncy (and misleading) trailer would indicate. Here is a deep and very moving story about the power that art has on its creator, and how it becomes a means of exorcising demons of the past.

Yes, this is the movie about how Walt Disney coaxed humorless and iron-willed Pamela “P.L.” Travers to sell him the rights to film her first “Mary Poppins” book, but the story turns out to be about much more than just the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, it also it also tells a parallel story that gets inside Travers’ sad history in order to explain her reluctance. “Mary Poppins” was a story so close to her heart that it seemed to exist in her DNA.

Saving Mr. Banks begins in 1961 as we meet the curmudgeonly Travers (Emma Thompson in a brilliant performance) in her London flat, having been contacted for the umpteenth time by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) who has spent 20 years trying to get her permission to bring her beloved “Mary Poppins” to life. Travers, we come to understand, readies the word ‘no’ like a loaded gun. She’s a cranky, foul-tempered old bat with little tolerance for anyone, especially her long-suffering agent (Ronan Vibert) who urges her to go and see Disney in person because she is nearly broke.

In Los Angeles, Travers is a stranger in a strange land. Here the post-war British stiff-upper lip enters the bizarre pop-art world of Kennedy’s 1960s America. Flustered and irritated, she can’t wait to tell Walt to go jump in a lake so she can beat it back home. But, as we all know, Walt didn’t take no for an answer (he made a promise to his daughters to turn ‘Poppins’ into a film). He persuades Travers to at least sit down with the creative team and see how things go. “These characters are like family to me,” she tells him passionately. This is not lost on Walt, who understood the value of keeping one’s creation close to the chest. He is, after all, a man who spent his life with a mouse close to his heart.

Travers clashes not only with Walt but also with co-screenwriter Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford) and with the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Dick (Jason Schwartzman) and Bob (B.J. Novak), making specific and very cutting demands: No penguins, no animation and certainly no Dick Van Dyke. Her demands seem unreasonable, but the reasons for her reluctance are laid out in a series of flashback scenes that examine her childhood growing up with a father who was a failed banker who died too young. The story, Disney comes to understand, is really her father’s story.  Under her unsmiling exterior Walt sees a woman who has spent her adult life nursing a broken heart.

There is a lot more weight here than we might expect. Emma Thompson, in a magnificent performance, plays Travers as an unyielding old bag who gradually – under the twinkling magic of Walt Disney – begins to come around to the idea of giving him her most precious creation. Her face is a mask of bitterness and frustration, but as we understand her background we understand that it is born out of heartbreak and regret. We see a little girl who was transplanted as a child from England to Australia by an irresponsible, but not un-loving father. He was a dreamer who let his personal demons ruin the family and himself. As the flashbacks progress, we see the machinations that inspired the events in “Mary Poppins.” Her father, Travers Goff, is played in a beautiful performance by Collin Farrell who, more than any other actor, knows how to project a mixture of masculinity and wounded pride.

Tom Hanks is an odd choice to play Walt Disney, he doesn’t much look like him (Gene Hackman might have been the perfect choice as a look-alike). But Hanks does a fine job, even when chewing on Disney’s trademark Missouri accent. He plays Walt with a twinkle in his eye and ever-present reminder that he is always – at heart – a bit of a huckster. He charms and eventually wins over Travers, but under his friendly smile we are never made to forget that he is, at heart, a salesman.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is a movie that will either draw your affection or your skepticism. It has already drawn sneers from critics who eagerly point out the film’s historic inaccuracies (and there are plenty), and your enjoyment of the film may hinge on how real you want it to be.  When it’s over, Saving Mr. Banks might be the greatest DVD promotion in history – especially with the 50th Anniversary blu-ray coming up. You can’t blame it for being shameless. This is, after all, a Disney film. The fact is, this is a wonderful movie about a haunted artist who found some measure of relief from possibly the only man who could have melted her icy heart. It’s a good and true movie about the power of art and the magic of movies.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Drama