by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
SAVING MR. BANKS
For two decades, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has been trying to wrestle the film rights from author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to her popular Mary Poppins series of books. With money troubles making things increasingly a hardship, the fearful writer, certain the cartoon impresario will transform her beloved heroine into something she will abhor, flies to Hollywood to meet with the studio head in person for the first time. She is presented with a script, assaulted with songs she doesn't find remotely appropriate to the source material, Travers and Disney match wits and butt heads as they try to sort out their differences, discovering the seeds of family dysfunction and tragedy that led to the blossoming of the literary inspiration children of all ages have treasured for generations untold.
Using the massive Disney vaults for inspiration, Saving Mr. Banks charts the ins and outs of a 1961 meeting of minds that would ultimately lead to the production of one of the studio's most cherished productions, their 1964 Academy Award-winning classic Mary Poppins. Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith use the information stored by the Hollywood studio in the historical vaults to craft a plot revolving around the two weeks Travers spent working with Walt, writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak) on the motion picture as she contemplated signing over the rights to the character. Intermixed inside that tale are flashbacks to her Australian childhood, her relationship to her doting, alcoholic banker father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) deduced to be the key to inspiring the books she would eventually pen.
The movie isn't nearly as imaginative as either Travers' writings or the live action-animation hybrid, which inspired this movie - that goes without saying. But as a whimsically audacious drama about how a motion picture masterpiece came to life, about the real people who worked, sometimes at cross-purposes, with all their might to stay true to what they believed to be the most important themes found within the source material, the movie is kind of wonderful. Not perfect, mind you, not supercalifragalistic&.well, you know the rest, but wonderful all the same. And this look behind the curtain is a thoroughly entertaining enterprise worth flying kites to the highest heights in order to see.
Playful hyperbole aside, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) has done a nice job here, balancing with relative ease the more melodramatic bits - mostly the stuff revolving around Goff and his twinkly-eyed daughter in the Australian outback - with the more authentically emotional beats in the story. He allows the relationship between Travers and Disney to blossom and grow without extra padding, refusing to layer on saccharine or syrup when in lesser hands the movie would be drowning in it. All of the pieces revolving around her visit to the Hollywood studio, working with the Sherman brothers and with DaGradi, each note comes home to roost relatively unobtrusively, bits of magic filtering through oftentimes at the most unexpected moments.
Yet, the main reason that all of this ends up working as well as it does is because of the performances, not just from Farrell, Whitford, Schwartzman and Novak, but also from fellow supporting players Paul Giamatti (as Travers' gregarious limo driver), Kathy Baker (Disney's highly trusted secretary Tommie), newcomer Annie Rose Buckley (Travers' younger self, nicknamed Ginty) and Melanie Paxson (Disney's flustered assistant Dolly). Each of them, especially Farrell, has a field day diving into their respective roles, all going above and beyond as they attempt to make this movie something more than just a reasonably enjoyable cinematic history lesson.
But the reason to see this movie, why it ends up being something close to special, is entirely due to Thompson and Hanks. Neither looks or sounds a thing like their historical counterparts yet somehow, someway, they both manage to disappear inside their roles. Thompson, in particular, is close to genius, her performance a slow burn of angst, apprehension, creativity and protectionism hiding secrets she'd rather the world not be made aware of. Her transformation isn't an obvious one, doesn't contain many, if any at all, overdramatic flourishes, all of it building to a few delicate moments of quiet retrospection and catharsis that's as sublime as it is compelling.
In some ways, Hanks has the more difficult challenge, portraying one of the 20th century's most iconic personalities, so much footage existing on Walt Disney that kids born by the time I finish writing this review will probably know the guy by sight within a few years' time. Somehow, someway, the two-time Academy Award winner, who already gave one of his greatest performances in October's Captain Phillips, does it again here, his multifaceted, intricately balanced portrait full of continuous wonders. He's excellent, a scene near the end inside Travers' London home as compelling as it is mesmerizing bringing all of the film's themes to life with emotionally ebullient ease.
Saving Mr. Banks can feel slight, and there are some annoying focus and pacing issues that keep it from sniffing greatness. Rachel Griffiths is wasted in a central role that by all accounts was the key ingredient inspiring Travers' signature heroine, while Thomas Newman's (Side Effects) Sherman-sampling score alternates between brilliance and tediousness, sometimes both at once. But the writing is unusually sharp the majority of the time, while Hancock's direction is confident and assured, the filmmaker rarely allowing the picture to go astray or meander into corners it shouldn't be examining. Coupled with the greatness of the performances, these facets and more help make the movie a relatively sublime jolly holiday, the resulting party one I'm happy to be celebrating.
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