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25 Movies to See Before the Oscars: 16. Saving Mr. Banks

Nominations: Original Score

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks in 'Saving Mr. Banks'
Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks in 'Saving Mr. Banks'
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So Disney made a movie about the making of a Disney movie – this might seem like a bit of a cheat to other cinematic chronicles of the same nature, especially those made in a an unflattering light…except that the Disney corporation pretty much owns everything. As bright and sweet as director John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks is, there definitely a lot of discomfort to be had in the story itself; its about the making of the Mary Poppins novel into a movie back in 1961, and the unstoppable force that was Walt Disney, played with gallant charm by Tom Hanks, warring against the immovable object Poppins creator and author P.L. Travers, played with fervent and hilarious vitriol by Emma Thompson. The heart of the story takes place during the two weeks of brainstorming sessions in Burbank, CA after Travers, whose coffers are nearly empty, relents to hearing Disney’s ideas for a big screen adaptation. Disney, his screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and songwriting Sherman brothers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) are put through Travers’ meat-grinder, bullying them every step of the way with off-handed personal attacks and outrageous demands like “No color red in the film – at all!” – a lot of which was recorded and used as reference for the film. But the audience soon finds there’s a lot more to her picky nature than being an old English curmudgeon.

The film goes into all to frequent flashbacks of Travers’ childhood in rural Australia, back when her name was Helen Goff, where her mother struggled to stay sane while her father, played by Colin Farrell, struggled with alcoholism and holding a steady job. Things get harder for the Goff family as the father’s health turns for the worst, and we see poor Helen stuck in the middle trying desperately to keep everyone together while still clinging to childlike hopefulness. Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith seem to make a point to revert to these flashbacks to offer explanations for everything that happens to Travers at the Disney studio which, save for the introduction of Helen’s Aunt Ellie who was the real-life inspiration for the Poppins novels, all feels belabored and preachy. It’s a shame the movie is so overwrought in this way especially since there are so many lovely moments that are so exposition heavy – like Hank’s Disney confiding to Travers his own rough childhood story, or Thompson playing the spectrum of emotion as her Travers watches the finished Mary Poppins film for the first time.

Saving Mr. Banks had high hopes for itself going into 2014 awards season, but alas there were too many other far better movies to contend with for it to get more than one nomination – for Thomas Newman for his Original Score. Newman is like the Scorsese of film composers: a singular genius to is constantly passed over for awards that are rightfully his. He lost to John Corigliano’s The Red Violin score in 1999 over his American Beauty soundtrack and lost again in 2009 to A.R. Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire score versus his score for WALL-E. (Including this year’s nomination, he has eleven career nods for Original Score). Granted Saving Mr. Banks isn’t as soaring as some of his other work, but I pray that someone throw this awesome guy a bone.