Biopic Comedy

Script-Approved Film Review: Saving Mr. Banks

December 20, 2013Ben MK

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Step in time

By Ben Mk

With Disney's recent acquisitions of Marvel, Star Wars and the Indiana Jones licenses, it may seem like the company once known as "The House of Mouse" is now about anything but. Flashback fifty or so years, to the release of the 1964 Disney classic Mary Poppins, and it was an entirely different story. With Walt Disney still at the helm and Mickey, Minnie and Donald at the forefront, there wasn't much distance between the company and its menagerie of cartoon characters. What does this all have to do with Mary Poppins and the new film Saving Mr. Banks -- about the penultimate leg of the long journey to get it made -- you might ask? It all has to do with perception.

Walt Disney himself spent some twenty years trying to bring a film version of Mary Poppins to life. That's twenty years, not filming or script writing or costume designing -- but twenty years trying to secure the film rights from Pamela Lyndon (P.L.) Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins book. It's the end of this tumultuous journey that's dramatized in director John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks. Emma Thompson plays P.L. Travers, the no-nonsense (and often stubborn and disagreeable) author, whose classic book is a mainstay on the nightstands of children the world over. Even in the Disney household, the book is a favorite piece of reading material, which explains why Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) is so adamant about turning it into a film. But Travers has deeply engrained perceptions of the Disney brand, and she doesn't want to compromise the integrity of her book by "Disney-fying" it. It's only after many years, the dwindling popularity of her book and the promise of final script approval that she allows herself to be coaxed to make the trek to Hollywood, to work with the production team on bringing her tale to movie houses everywhere. Once there, she is met by Disney's driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), who takes her to meet with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). And although it may seem like the end of a long journey, little do any of them realize that the real work is just beginning.

Saving Mr. Banks is really two stories in one. On one hand, there's the tale of Travers, Disney, DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers trying to come up with a mutually agreeable film interpretation. And on the other hand, there's the tale of Mary Poppins' backstory -- that of a young P.L. Travers, before she was known as P.L. Travers and was simply Helen "Biddy" Goff (played by newcomer, Lily Bigham). Young Helen's tale begins in early 1900's Australia, when she moves with her mother, Margaret (Ruth Wilson), father, Travers (Colin Farrell), and two siblings to a small farmhouse in the town of Allora. It's an idyllic setting, one that belies the truth of the situation -- plagued by demons of alcoholism, Helen's father has had to move the family there so that he can take up a new job, after being fired from his previous one on account of his love of the bottle. It's at the farmhouse that Helen comes to realize the truth, including the fact that she can no longer afford to hold onto the innocence that she once treasured so dearly.

The intersection of these two stories is what gives the film its heart, for you can't have one without the other. Without Pamela's story, there's no closure to the tale of young Helen; and the story of Helen is integral to Pamela's story because it humanizes her character, letting viewers know how she became the woman that she is. Playing only one side of the story, Thompson is tasked with walking a fine line. There's no real antagonist in the piece, so special attention needs to be paid to ensure that her character doesn't end up coming off as one -- a valid concern since she's single-handedly responsible for obstructing the film's production at every turn. Luckily, Thompson's portrayal of the author lets both her toughness and vulnerability shine through; and as the film progresses and we find out more and more about her early days, we only come to sympathize with her even more. Likewise, Hanks paints his portrayal of Disney with an air of humanity, looking mostly the part and being careful not to let his performance veer into parody by injecting the odd "Hanks-ism" here and there. For the most part, Giamatti, Whitford, Schwartzman and Novak are there to play it for laughs, by being constantly befuddled at Pamela's incessant stubbornness; but that's not to say there isn't a lot of heart in their portrayals as well. The film is not anything if not character-driven, and it owes a lot to these performances.

The Bottom Line

The U.S. Library of Congress announced just this week that Mary Poppins had been selected for preservation for future generations, further legitimatizing the classic status that film has achieved. It's a spectacular coincidence that this just happens to coincide with the looming fiftieth anniversary of the film and the arrival of a film which immortalizes the struggle to get it made. It's certainly a good time to be a Mary Poppins fan, and it's those fans who will enjoy Saving Mr. Banks the most. But for those who aren't familiar with the 1964 classic, this film might just spur you to discover what has now been officially recognized as a national treasure. [★★★½]

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