Saving Mr. Banks (film review)
Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Walt Disney Pictures
2 hrs. 5 mins.
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitfield, Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak, Kathy Baker, Rachel Griffiths
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
MPAA Rating: PG
Critic’s rating: *** stars (out of 4 stars)
One cannot go wrong this holiday season when checking out the moving and festive Saving Mr. Banks, a spirited biopic that rises to the occasion because its pulse thrives on what it knows best—the creative process behind movie-making. What better way to demonstrate the love for a nostalgic look at films than to concentrate on a couple of legendary film industry targets: Walt Disney and his family-friendly empire of animation and the creator of Mary Poppins in English-Australian author Pamela L. Travers?
Interestingly, Walt Disney actually takes a backseat to P.L. Travers as Saving Mr. Banks is a passionate and perplexing postcard about her life experiences as a wide-eyed child in Australia after the turn of the century to a brilliant but bitter mature creative literary mind tormented from her disenchanted past. Some folks may have anticipated the documented controversies and complications that made up the movie mastermind in the eccentric Disney but then again why would a feel-good picture from Disney Pictures unwisely malign its own incomparable and inspirational namesake? No people…Saving Mr. Banks refreshingly heads in the other direction as it examines the embedded demons of the austere Travers instead. After all, one must appreciate the irony of showcasing an uptight European iron maiden responsible for breathing life into one of the most iconic and sweetly-natured children’s fairy tale figures from the twentieth century.
Two-time Oscar winners Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks give marvelously insightful performances as the Disney-Travers tandem clashing heads over the negotiation process of bringing the studio’s screen adaptation of the magical kiddie classic to the big screen. Hanks’s impish and easy-going Disney is a giddy-minded contrast to Thompson’s battle-axe Brit with a noted aversion to minors (Travers tersely inquires about a woman’s child whose crying tendencies she does not want to hear on an 11-hour airplane flight to the United States from London). Obviously, Travers’s impatience and intolerance with juveniles is comical considering this is the core demographic that had made her Mary Poppins books an acquired taste in the imaginations of youngsters everywhere.
The film relies heavily on periodical flashbacks to Pamela’s childhood when things were seemingly idyllic in her Australian village. In particular, she enjoyed her intimate playful times with her father Robert Goff Travers (played wonderfully by Colin Farrell) who was the parental sunshine of her life. Robert was great at being a fun-loving dad with Pamela and her siblings as he found leisure time to pay them attention. However, he was a lousy bread-winner as he could not hold down a job to support his family. More important, Roberts was an alcoholic and physically deteriorated gradually in front of little Pamela’s adoring-turned-anguished eyes. Pamela’s mother, distraught with her father’s sickness for the bottle, held suicidal thoughts of her own. It is revealed that Pamela’s childhood trauma and treasured memories contributed to shaping her influences for Mary Poppins (probably the best model for her literary creation was her visiting Aunt Ellie as played by Rachel Griffiths).
The backstory involves Disney’s 20-year futile attempt to acquire the rights to Traver’s Mary Poppins so he can add to the profitable market of his entertainment paradise. Travers finally agrees to meet with Disney and his people in Los Angeles as her finances are depleting. Travers is a stickler for rules and what she believes to be true to her Mary Poppins characterization. Disney—having radical ideas about how he wants to present Mary Poppins to his audience—has to constantly appease this frustrating and icy-blooded woman who refuses to march to the beat of his drum. Disney’s handler Don (Bradley Whitford) and his songwriters (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) try to incorporate some catchy ideas for the movie’ s potential songs but Travers will not budge on listening to their creative juices. Travers even has Disney’s personal secretary (Kathy Baker) tip toeing around her demanding persona.
When Travers is not harassing the workers at the movie studio or refusing to loosen up around head honcho Walt she complains about the Southern California landscape with her affable personal driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). Unlike the others, Paul is not as intimidated by P.L. Travers and engages her in continual friendly chats. Ironically, working stiff Paul is the breath of fresh air that enables Travers to let her hair down a bit as she starts to relate to his laid back personality. Soon, Disney and his movie-appointed minions make somewhat of a breakthrough in denting the hardened shell that is P.L. Travers was she begins to find the impressionable tiny girl that was seduced by her late father’s unrealistic dreams, delusions and damaging drinking.
Saving Mr. Banks is laced with its fair share of saccharine-coated sentimentality. But hey…this is what the Disney movie-making machine does at its characteristic best. Director John Lee Hancock keeps the mawkish moments minimal and honest. Thompson’s P.L. Travers is sympathetic but commanding with that convincing kind of vulnerability. Hanks’s portrayal of Walt Disney is fortified with a charming roguishness that is quite appealing. Farrell provides an amazing turn as Travers’s beverage-afflicted paternal role model guilty of leaving the life-long psychological scars on his precious-turned-cynical offspring.
Thankfully, Saving Mr. Banks is giving moviegoers a special kind of Christmas wrapping that will delight the Disney universe this or any other holiday season.
NOTE: Focus of New York film critic Frank Ochieng is a member of: