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MOVIE REVIEW: Saving Mr. Banks

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Making this the jolliest holiday of the year, SAVING MR. BANKS is, quite frankly, practically perfect in every way. Timeless magic destined to become a classic, SAVING MR. BANKS is based on the true account of the making of “Mary Poppins”, the story behind the story; the battle of wills between studio titan Walt Disney and literary titan P.L. Travers as the man behind the mouse fought to fulfill a promise to his daughters, a promise to bring to life on the big screen the beloved story of the nanny with the bottomless carpetbag and talking parrot head umbrella. While it may have taken nearly 20 years from the time Roy Disney made the first overture to P.L. Travers and when Walt Disney finally got the movie made, the proof is in the pudding that the wait - and war - was worth it. Thanks to a mesmerizing transformation and brilliant performance by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and a meticulously spit-spot Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, rest assured your tuppence will be well spent with SAVING MR. BANKS.

P.L. Travers was more than reluctant to sell the rights for “Mary Poppins” to Walt Disney. Well known for his glorious eye-popping, sing-song animation, Travers’ biggest fear was that Disney would turn her cherished characters and story into cartoonish folly, something which she could never abide for you see, Mary Poppins and the Bankses were “like family” to her and indeed, they were. Thanks to an artfully crafted script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the clash of the titans (Disney and Travers) is seamlessly melded with flashbacks of Pamela Travers’ life as a child in the Australian outback, a life that found its way into the very characters and essence of all that would become “Mary Poppins.”

For economic reasons, and at the insistence of her barrister and financier, Travers ultimately agrees to meet with Disney at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank for two weeks to discuss the proposed script. She would be working closely with screenwriter Don DaGradi and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. From the get-go, however, Travers is less than amused with the script and the idea of catchy songs, voicing her displeasure at every turn, especially at the incessant parade of candy and sweets brought in to the music rehearsal room on a tea trolley by a perpetually perky assistant named Dolly.

With Disney and the boys thwarted at every turn, it looks as though they will never get the rights to “Mary Poppins”. Thanks to Travers’ warm, golden-laced childhood memories sparked by a line of dialogue in the script, or a glance out of the limo window or, perish the thought, some pears in a fruit basket in her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, we slowly learn why. And with each memory, you understand her fears. How can anyone expect her to let go of her family and let them be “handled” by Disney? Can Walt Disney tap into Travers’ heart and get the rights to “Mary Poppins.”

Tom Hanks is nothing short of brilliant. Not only transformed by make-up, Hanks captures Walt Disney’s folksy charm and well known vocal intonations and mannerisms that those of us growing up on weekly visits with Disney television anthology immediately recognize. Thanks to extensive research into Disney, Hanks gives a loving strong performance immersing us in this one moment in time, this one chapter of the man who was Walt Disney.

Prim, proper, enigmatic, stoic with perfectly clipped pronunciation, elocution and delicious rudeness, as P.L. Travers, Emma Thompson is front and center commanding every scene. An emotional balancing act to rival a chimney sweep dancing on the edge of a rooftop, Thompson creates an emotional tapestry of nuance that captures the secretive joys of childhood, wistful longings of love for her father, and a paternal protectiveness that steals the heart. Fierce, fearsome and sympathetic all in the same moment. Thompson is magic.

Colin Farrell delivers one of his best performances as Travers Goff. Light and lilting, Farrell sweeps you into the joys of imagination and creativity and the freedom of childhood, lacing it with the pain of life, something analogous to Walt Disney and the uplifting and happy sugar-coated animation and storytelling for which Disney was and is so well known. Where Farrell really knocks it out of the park are his scenes with Annie Rose Buckley who plays the young Helen aka “Ginty.” Joy personified.

Bradley Whitford captures Disney screenwriter Don DaGradi to a tee, making us feel both DaGradi’s enthusiasm with the project and the exasperation with Mrs. Travers. But look no further than BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman as Robert and Richard Sherman for real purity and showmanship. From the ringing clarity of their voices chiming out “Feed the Birds” or “A Spoonful of Sugar” to Schwartzman’s jaunty piano-playing styling that will have you believing Richard Sherman himself is at the old 88's, their performance soar as high as any kite. Schwartzman is so authentic and engaging that he should be garnering awards consideration.

No surprise here is scene-stealer Paul Giamatti. As Travers’ fictional chauffeur Ralph, Giamatti is the touchstone of the heart and purity and all that Disney ever hoped to achieve. Your heart will swell and your eyes tear up. Tissues please!

Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the story effortlessly melds present day 1961 with Pamela Travers’ childhood in 1906 Australia. Creating a strong script foundation with Travers writings and journals incorporated into an earlier biography by Valerie Lawson and 2002 Australian tv documentary, Marcel and Smith then have full access to the Disney archives and audio recordings made at the insistence of Travers of every meeting between Travers, DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers. The result is a fully realized story with complete contextual reference

Directed by John Lee Hancock, SAVING MR. BANKS is as timeless as it is effortless in its storytelling magic. Cinematographer John Schwartzman uses soft widescreen lensing that captures the nostalgic filmic sensibility of 1961, keeping light softly diffused in Burbank, a bit crisper in the Travers’ London home and then golden and warm for the Australian sequences. Capitalizing on the ability to shoot on the relatively unchanged Disney lot and in rehearsal studios where the real events occurred in 1961, Schwartzman makes the most of wider two-shots, saving close-ups for intimate, emotionally intense moments of Thompson deep in thought or Hanks and Thompson talking about their respective families - Mickey Mouse and Mary Poppins.

Costuming is period perfect for both 1906 and 1961, seamlessly visually transporting us through time with Mary Poppins-efficiency. Production design excels, thanks in large part to the majority of lensing taking place on the Disney lot, which has remained relatively unchanged since 1961, as well as a rare shooting at Disneyland itself.

You won’t need a spoonful of sugar to taste the sweet charm of this story. SAVING MR. BANKS is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Directed by John Lee Hancock
Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith

Cast: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Paul Giamatti

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