Sunday, December 15, 2013

Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Image courtesy of  Walt Disney Pictures.
So, here's a genuine surprise: John Lee Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks" is not exactly the feel-good making-of-a-movie film that you'd might expect. Yes, it has its heart-warming moments, yet the picture is not sentimental, but rather genuinely affecting. And, surprisingly, it's a bit more downbeat than I could have ever expected.

The film follows the turbulent process of bringing P.L. Travers' "Mary Poppins" to the big screen in the early 1960s. Emma Thompson plays Travers as a bit of a pill, a snooty English woman whose career has faded after her royalties have run out and dreads the idea of relying on an American film studio to restore her financially.

Tom Hanks is Walt Disney and, at first, he plays the iconic animator, director and studio head in the aw-shucks manner you might be expecting. That is, until he lays some heavy baggage on Travers late in the film. Between his terrific performance in "Captain Phillips" and some strong supporting work here as Disney, Hanks has, thankfully, reentered the realm of great acting after having kept a mostly low-key role as a producer, director and occasional performer during the past few years.

The struggle between Disney and Travers, who does not want the film of her novels to include cartoon figures and cheerful ditties, is coupled with a series of flashbacks as Travers grows up poor with her well-meaning, but alcoholic failure of a father (Colin Farrell), in early 20th century Australia. This story sheds some light on why Travers is so difficult in matters of handing off her beloved Mary to Disney and his team of writers, which includes Jason Schwartzman and Bradley Whitford.

As I've said, for a movie that aims to be an Oscar crowd pleaser - you know, the type of film about moviemaking that has scored the top prize during the past two Academy Awards ceremonies, "Saving Mr. Banks" goes to some dark places. This is yet another movie about an artist - or, in this case, two artists - at work, but also an exploration of how their histories have shaped and inspired their art. At one point in the film, Travers insists that Disney appropriate the gravitas of her novels into the movie version. It's nice to see that Hancock has respected that wish in his own film about the making of that movie.

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