Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Review: "Saving Mr. Banks"

Mary Poppins has always been one of my favorite Disney films. While it's a little too long and drags a bit at certain points, it's still merry and emotionally satisfying (and keeps me singing long after the movie has ended).

I felt pretty much the same way about Saving Mr. Banks, the story of Walt Disney's struggle to bring this classic to the screen. Disney (Tom Hanks) had been trying to convince English author P.L. (Pamela) Travers (Emma Thompson, at her most superciliously cranky) to grant him the rights to her series of books featuring magical nanny Mary Poppins, so he could make them into a movie. But Travers couldn't stand the idea of allowing Disney to add his "magic" to Mary and the Banks family—the thought of the characters being turned into cartoons or "cavorting" with fairies didn't sit well, as her characters meant too much to her.

After a 20-year battle of wills, Travers' financial need finally brings her to Los Angeles to meet with Disney and the team he has put in place to adapt Mary Poppins for the cinema. But all too quickly Pamela realizes she's not pleased with the direction that Disney, script writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the musical team of the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) have imagined. She tosses out nearly all of their ideas, including casting Dick Van Dyke as Bert. ("He's one of the greats," Pamela is told. "Laurence Olivier is one of the greats," she retorts. "Dick Van Dyke is most certainly not.")

As the movie unfolds, we learn through one or two too many flashbacks the hold that Mary and the Bankses have on Pamela, as they took root in her childhood in rural Australia. She begins to understand that Walt Disney is more than just a hyperactive, money-making hack, but someone who truly does care about Mary Poppins. She also learns that she and Disney have more in common than she would imagine, as the pair's animosity toward each other begins to thaw. And the rest, of course, is glorious cinematic history.

I really enjoyed this movie, as it stimulated my sense of fun and nostalgia as well as my emotions. Emma Thompson is pretty spectacular, as she combines haughty superiority and irritation with true sensitivity. It's the type of character Thompson does really well, and although her Travers starts out fairly unlikeable (how can you not be charmed by the magic of Disney?), you know she's more complex than you think. Tom Hanks does a great job as Walt Disney, with both a mischievous twinkle, a sensitive moment or two, and the bluster you can imagine the real genius had. Colin Farrell, as well as Whitford, Schwartzman, Novak, and Paul Giamatti as Pamela's driver, all turn in strong performances as well.

Movies about making movies are always good fun—take Singin' in the Rain or State and Main as examples—and Saving Mr. Banks is a worthy addition to this canon. It's a heartwarming and fun movie with a lot of heart, like so many Disney movies of yesterday and today.

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