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Film Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Film Review Saving Mr Banks Disney


David Ives - published on 01/10/14

Disney Studios takes on the making of perhaps its greatest film.

The January/February movie season has traditionally been viewed as the graveyard to which studios send their lesser films to die a quick death. So if you're compelled to see a movie in theaters during this time, you've basically got two choices – you can put on your battle face and heroically face the worst Hollywood can dish out (Hercules? And not even the one starring The Rock? Really?), or you can chicken out and catch up on all those potential Oscar nominees that you haven't managed to see yet. Well, it's still too darn cold out there to muster up any barbaric yawps right at the moment, so I suggest we just just go ahead and pass out some white weathers and have a nice chat about Saving Mr. Banks.

Now a lot of movies based on true events have unfolded on the big screen over the past year – films chock full of real people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. We've seen desperate parents participating in drug deals (Snitch), Formula-1 racers risking their lives on the track (Rush), bodybuilding kidnappers (Pain & Gain), innocent men having their freedom stolen away (Twelve Years A Slave), and small-time con artists trapped in big-time government scandals (American Hustle). So with such an over-abundance of heart pounding true stories preceding it, you could forgive a person if they found the idea of a movie about Walt Disney making a business deal to sound less than exciting.

Surprisingly, Saving Mr. Banks turns out to be, in its own quiet way, one of the more touching mainstream movies to hit theaters in awhile. The film chronicles Walt Disney's (the man himself, not the company) week-long last-ditch effort to woo author P. L. Travers into signing over the film rights to Mary Poppins. The problem is that Travers despises most, if not all, of Disney's output and has no interest in releasing her creation into his clutches. She only agrees to come to California because she is desperately in need of money and has been assured by her agent that Disney will submit to any and all changes to the script she requests – something Disney has never acquiesced to in his entire career.

On the surface, it sounds like the movie is going to focus on a monumental contest of wills, which should provide plenty of entertainment given the personalities involved. After all, if we're to believe the sound bytes of conventional wisdom, then we all know that in real life Travers was a weaselly, paranoid monster who hated most of her fellow men, while Disney was actually a misogynistic Jew-hating god-king whose frozen head still tyrannically oversees his kingdom years after his alleged death. Who wouldn't want to watch a battle to the death between two such titans of terror?

Fortunately, the movie wisely sidesteps the more exaggerated aspects of conventional wisdom and instead gives us a simple story about two relatable human beings caught up in a very personal situation. For his part, Disney feels compelled to  make good on a promise he made to his daughters twenty years earlier to bring Mary Poppins to the screen. By his own account, he's never once lied to his children, and so he'll bring to bear all his considerable skill as a consummate showman and relentless businessman to ensure this isn't the first time.

As for Travers, her motivations for persistently denying Disney permission to make the movie are a bit more complicated, and the backstory which informs her present state of mind takes up a good portion of the film's running time. Told in intervals via flashback, we learn of Travers's childhood in Australia, spent with a doting father who both cherished her and encouraged her blossoming imagination above all other things, but who tragically was also slowly being eaten away by a crippling alcoholism. It's the little girl's complex relationship with her father that is the key to not only her predicament with Disney, but oddly enough, to the story of Mary Poppins itself. (At least that's what the screenwriters would have us believe – and true or not, they make a pretty compelling argument by the time the credits roll.)

Watching Disney and Travers struggle to come to an agreement that one desperately wants and the other adamantly wishes to avoid turns out not to be boring at all. The film alternates deftly between moments of amusement and scenes of real emotion, thanks in no small part to the two leads. Tom Hanks (really, who else could you think of for the role of Walt Disney?) is reliably good as the man behind the mouse, although his best shot at a nomination this year likely remains his work in Captain Phillips. Rumors of whatever his frozen head may or may not be up to these days put aside, the Disney we meet in this film is sneaky and a bit of a bully when he feels it necessary, but ultimately he's a likable man with good intentions.

Travers is another story. Apparently, most of the bad things said about the real-life Travers have a grain of truth to them, and so Thompson is burdened with playing what should be a completely unlikable character. She's brusque even to those who are friendly towards her, bereft of even the smallest of social skills, and a contrarian of the highest order. It's hard to imagine that Emma Thompson's portrayal of the troubled Travers won't earn her an Oscar nod. In Thompson's hands (with an able assist from a great screenplay and Thomas Newman's music), there are moments where Travers's humanity shines through, and we find ourselves unexpectedly pulling for her as well. When an instant arrives in which Travers begins to tap her foot to a tune after a week of constantly berating Disney's songwriters, you almost want to cheer – not only in joy for the much put-upon Sherman brothers, but in relief for Travers herself.

Even so-called monsters have souls, the movie tells us, and sometimes – if they're willing to dig deep enough – the right person can help those monsters find peace. It makes you want to go up to all those people who annoy you during Mass for whatever reason and reach out to them and say, "Peace be with you!", and not only actually mean it, but wish you could somehow be an instrument in bringing it about. (Which is kind of the point in making the gesture in the first place, isn't it?)

I know it all sounds a bit schmaltzy, but it's a movie about Walt Disney for crying out loud, so you had to expect a little of that, right? But it's also sincere, and it's honestly one of the few movies this season where you'll walk out of the theater feeling not just entertained, but actually a little bit good inside. There are numerous articles out there right now purporting to tell the truth behind Saving Mr. Banks, but I'm not ready to read them just yet. I like this story the way it is on the screen. It's got the truth in it, if not necessarily all the facts, and that's just fine. They can make a movie about Disney's frozen head some other day.

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