The short review: Although it is about 30 minutes too long and a bit by the numbers, Saving Mr. Banks offers some splendid performances, has undeniable charm, and is one of the best cinematic presents to unwrap this holiday season.
The long review: While much to do has been made over how Saving Mr. Banks presents a gussied up, less-than-accurate version of P.L. Travers and her relationship with Walt Disney, this review won’t be focusing on that. For a well-written, studied takedown of the film, I wholeheartedly recommend reading Amy Nicholson’s review at L.A. Weekly. In the meantime, I’m going to review the film on its own merits based on my knowledge, emotional response, and state of mind when I first saw it.
Do you smell that? Those aren’t chestnuts roasting on an open fire. That’s the smell of fresh Oscar bait, cooling on the window sill, waiting for eager audiences and Academy voters to catch its scent and follow it like a siren song off the gangplank and into the ever-deepening ocean of the cult of Disney. Everything about Saving Mr. Banks‘ marketing smacks of making a push to garner awards season nominations for its two leads, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as the indefatigable P.L. Travers. That isn’t a slight against the film; just its inexorable marketing campaign. It’s actually quite deserving of the buzz it has received thus far. In fact, it’s quite good.
Director John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks is an exceedingly likable, devilishly charming little film that gives us an insider view of the tumultuous process Walt Disney went through in order to fulfill a promise he’d made to his daughters some twenty years prior to turn Mary Poppins into a feature film. But for all Hanks’ charisma and magnetic screen presence, the story isn’t about Walt Disney; it is about P.L. Travers, the brains behind Poppins, and her intense, deeply complex personal relationship with the character that she just couldn’t seem to let go.
Much like how you know going into Titanic that the boat sinks at the end, you know that Walt gets his way and Mary Poppins becomes a feature film in 1964. If this came as a spoiler to you, please log off right now and consider what you’ve done with your life that lead you to this point without that knowledge. The challenge, as I’ve mentioned with films like Captain Phillips, is in making the journey an exciting one, one that we as viewers will want to embark upon for two-plus hours when we already know the conclusion is foregone. Screenwriter Kelly Marcel, who was brought in to work on a preexisting script from Sue Smith, keeps the action moving by splitting our focus between the past and present, P.L. Travers’ fateful two-week trip to Burbank, CA where Walt tried everything in his power to woo her and Travers’ youth spent in the magical realist paradise that is the Australian countryside and the father she idealized (Colin Farrell).
In a film that runs as excessively long as Saving Mr. Banks (we get it — they make Mary Poppins into a movie), any change of scenery is a welcome change of pace. For my money, the film’s length is its greatest sin, although it teeters on the edge of getting overly sentimental much like this cockatoo on the precipice of a chocolate fondue fountain. Silly similies aside, the film’s tone – a constant, gradual emotional crescendo – wears on the viewer. In a column in the Los Angeles Times, Marcel said, “With Banks, there was always a fear that the film would be overly sentimental, but John pulled us back from the edge every time.” If he pulled them back from the edge, then I hesitate to gaze into the abyss at the mushy pile of emotional overindulgence lying at the cliff’s bottom. The film earns many of its emotional peaks and valleys, but at times, particularly toward the end, it had my rolling my eyes and mouthing, “get on with it”.
I would be remiss in my duties if I did not call special attention to Emma Thompson and her dynamite portrayal of Travers. Historical accuracy aside, Thompson manages to make this staid, priggish prickly pear of a character into a three-dimensional, emotionally grounded, sympathetic figure. Say what you will about the film’s myriad flashbacks – its best sequences lie in Thompson trying to make her peace with the past in the modern day, and in particular, her rapturously grumpy encounters with the easy-breezy “California Livin'” lifestyle embodied by Walt Disney and his crew in the sunny, comparative paradise of Los Angeles.
Hanks, too, is worthy of praise, but the film’s supporting players – Paul Giamatti’s relentlessly peppy chauffeur, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman’s Sherman Brothers, Bradley Whitford’s hapless Don DaGradi, to name a few – are what elevates Saving Mr. Banks from good to great and makes it a must see this holiday season, especially for fans of Disney and those curious about what a slice of development hell looks like.
If you can can swallow the sugarcoated version of history and take it at face value, Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful addition to Disney’s live action oeuvre. Go ahead and put on those rose-colored glasses and let Hancock’s vision of the Disney of yesteryear and the long, winding road to take Mary Poppins from children’s book to cinematic classic lift you up and away. It may be lengthy, but Saving Mr. Banks is most assuredly a journey worth embarking upon, thanks in no small part to Emma Thompson’s studied, lived-in performance and a stellar supporting cast to raise her up over their heads and on to the east wind.
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