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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Movie Review - Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, and Rachel Griffiths
Directed by John Lee Hancock

Poor Saving Mr. Banks.  Hit with articles and speeches (thanks, Meryl Streep) saying that it's a whitewash of Walt Disney's "true" misogynistic and anti-Semitic leanings, intent on being a love letter for the cherished movie company, the family friendly film all but missed the boat on Oscar nomination day failing to earn a nod beyond Best Score.  Critics of the film will tell you that the movie sets up Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers as a put-upon lady who had to succumb to "Uncle Walt's" wishes in order to finally have a film version of her classic novel placed up on the screen.  Quite honestly, I can't help but think that's a bunch of baloney as that's not at all what I saw in this movie.  Travers' headstrong personality may have kowtowed in certain areas of production, but to call her an obsequious woman trampled on by a larger than life figure misses the boat completely.  Yes, Saving Mr. Banks is a film about letting things go, but Travers isn't "giving up" her beloved Mary Poppins.  Instead, she's giving up some long-standing guilt that's she's clung to since her childhood.  The story here isn't really about the making of a movie...it's about one woman's acceptance of the past and willingness to forgive herself for things beyond her control.

Saving Mr. Banks manages to take two separate storylines and weave them together rather seamlessly thanks to a lovely script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith and nice (though perhaps a tiny touch heavyhanded) direction by John Lee Hancock.  First, we see an adult Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) finding herself facing monetary trouble.  With her unwillingness to write any more novels and sales of her Mary Poppins series dwindling, London-based Travers is convinced by her agent/publisher to travel to California and meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to discuss the making of Poppins into a feature film.  Upon her initial meeting with the Hollywood mogul, Travers agrees to see what Disney, screenwriter Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford), and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) have crafted for her beloved nanny character.  Travers is not an easy woman to please.  While some may call her curmudgeonly, she simply has a vision as to what she believes Mary Poppins should be.

The reason for that vision is because, as much as she tried to suppress it for decades, Mary Poppins is really a re-imagined telling of what she longed for her childhood to be.  In the other half of Saving Mr. Banks, we bear witness to Travers' youth.  Young Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) simply adores her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), a banker whose imaginative mind created a fantastical world for Ginty and her two siblings despite the family living on a dilapidated ranch in Australia.  Travers wanted nothing more than to provide for his family, however, he was dealing with his own personal demons in the form of alcohol and young Ginty carried around the guilt for decades of not being able to "save" her father from placing his lips to the bottle.

As we discover, Ginty is really Pamela Travers with Pamela changing her name in adulthood to honor her father.  The film bounces back and forth between the two storylines with each allowing the other to become richer and more well-rounded as layers are revealed.  We begin to realize that it's her childhood experiences that shaped Pamela Travers into the no-nonsense (perhaps even crotchety) woman that she became.  She used her novel to try and cope with the demons of her past, but rather than helping her let them go, the book made them cling to them even more.  Through the making of the film version of Mary Poppins, Travers is able to release them (even if just a little bit), but this doesn't come without an emotional toll for her.

Emma Thompson is fantastic as P.L. Travers.  Admittedly, she starts off rather one note, with Travers being a woman of clipped, precise words, showing little to no emotion behind a rock-hard exterior.  However, as the film progresses, we see glimpses of her ice queen nature being melted away.  It's this change that has many of the film's critics crying fowl with the critique being that through the "magic of Disney," all of her problems were solved.  That's just not the case.  Thompson's Travers can really be summed up in the film's final scene (of which, I guess, this could be considered a spoiler, so read on with that knowledge) in which Travers sits watching the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins.  Without a single word and only through facial expressions and the slightest of body movement, we see Travers initially disgraced with her selling out of her beloved character, angered by the addition of animation (which she was adamantly against), yet moved by the lovely depiction of family life and of a father who wanted nothing more than his children to flourish and grow beyond what he could provide for them.  John Lee Hancock stays focused on Thompson's face and it's a fantastic moment that carries so much more emotional impact than what we're seeing on the surface because of everything Thompson brings to the role.

Although Thompson is certainly the center of the film, she's surrounded by fantastic performances all around, including Tom Hanks as the equally opinionated Walt Disney.  Disney here is a nice guy who's willing to make concessions to Travers, but not willing to forgo his knowledge of what makes "quality" movies.  The back-and-forth between the two actors is oftentimes brilliant and was a treat to watch.  A very nice and subdued supporting turn from Paul Giamatti as Travers' driver was also a nice addition.  Really, though, there's not a bad performance here at all and that's certainly something worth recognizing.

I will admit that I come to Saving Mr. Banks with some inherent bias in that I'm the biggest Disney fan I know.  However, I also approached this film with a great level of fear and trepidation that it wouldn't even come close to living up to the bar I had set for it.  In fact, I avoided watching the film for nearly a month because I simply didn't want to have my hopes shattered.  I'm beyond pleased to state that my worries were unfounded.  Saving Mr. Banks is an absolutely lovely film that carries much more emotional depth than I ever could have expected.

As a side note, stay halfway through the credits.  There, you'll hear taped recordings of Travers duking it out with the Sherman brothers and screenwriter Don DeGradi over the script.  It shows that the film's depiction of Travers was certainly true-to-form.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-


  1. There were many times this movie could have easily been sappy and manipulative, but it took the high-road. Eventually though, it got me tearing-up, as much as I hate to admit it. Good review Jeff.

  2. Thanks and I completely agree that the sappiness I was expecting wasn't there. The moment that actually got to me was when Travers is sitting in the work room and the Shermans, Don, and the secretary act out the "Let's Go Fly a Kite" scene. Travers sits staunch and rigid, but then her toe starts tapping, eventually getting up to dance. I realize there's "manipulation" there in the way the scene was shot, but I stand by the fact the notion that all movies are "manipulative" in one way or another in that their goal is to ultimately make us feel a certain way about certain things.

    Anyway, that moment was magic to me.

    Thanks for reading.