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Advance movie review: 'Saving Mr. Banks' put drama ahead of Disney magic

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Saving Mr. Banks

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SAVING MR. BANKS-- 4 STARS

Saving Mr. Banks is the newest live-action feature film from Walt Disney Pictures. Over the past two decades, the overwhelming majority of live-action entries from Walt Disney Pictures have been cash register-fueled blockbusters like The Lone Ranger, Oz The Great and Powerful, John Carter, and massive franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Combined with their legendary musical and animated offerings, including the currently playing new classic Frozen, the studio's specialty has always been bringing fantasies to life. "Intimate," "practical," and "low key" are three terms Disney has been, decidedly, unfamiliar with in recent memory. Saving Mr. Banks seeks to flip that formula. Directed by The Blindside's John Lee Hancock, who has his own Disney live-action experience with The Alamo and The Rookie, the film is a bonafide Oscar contender, which is something Oz the Great and Powerful can't say.

Offering a layered behind-the-scenes look into both the true story of Mary Poppins and a vivid chapter of the studio's own legendary past, Saving Mr. Banks puts much of the over-inflated charm, syrup, and cheese of Disney features aside to tell a legitimately dramatic story. Starring respectable Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson and co-produced by BBC Films (My Week with Marilyn, Jane Eyre, Notes on a Scandal, Billy Elliot), Saving Mr. Banks puts Disney itself under its own microscope and offers a reasonably honest and unflinching look about what it takes to make a "Disney movie" that comes from more intimate and humble roots that just a fairy tale.

The present day of Saving Mr. Banks is the summer of 1961 when Walt Disney himself (Hanks) is finishing a long 20-year struggle to acquire the film rights to Mary Poppins from reclusive author Pamela "P.L." Travers, played by Emma Thompson. The prim and proper London writer has been extremely resistant to signing her very personal creation over to the cartoonish showman she considers Walt Disney to be over these last two decades. Acting on a promise to his own daughters and on his own determination as an innovator and entertainer, Walt gave into her demand of final script approval and invites her to Los Angeles to be part of the screenplay and pre-production process of bringing Mary Poppins to the silver screen.

Making the journey overseas, Mrs. Travers stays at the Beverly Hills Hotel and spends two weeks coming to the rehearsal rooms and offices at Disneyland to collaborate with Walt and his main team of hit-makers, comprised of legendary screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the composer and lyricist team of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (Wes Anderson favorite Jason Schwartzman and The Office's B.J. Novak). She insists that every session be recorded and we become privy to the difficult back-and-forth and give-and-take confrontations of the Disney gentlemen trying to make a hit musical with Mrs. Travers inflexibily shooting down every suggestion or change to her work.

What lies deeper underneath this Hollywood story are the flashbacks to Pamela's own upbringing in Australia during the early 1900's. We meet her as a young girl enamored by the stature and imaginative fantasies created by her garrulous, hard-luck banker father, played by Colin Farrell, as they move from the city to the country in rural Australia. In these seamlessly blended scenes, we see the life events, inspirations, and profound changes that turned that little girl into the woman she is now. We see the important roots that Walt and his team do not yet understand as to what makes Mary Poppins such a personal possession of Mrs. Travers. All they see is a stiff, unwavering Brit, not the bigger connections.

The frosty relationship between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers to get Mary Poppins made is well documented in her publicly-presented personal collections and her later biographies, particularly Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lawson. Saving Mr. Banks is likely very much the Disney side of the story, but the film puts great effort forward to make the journey of P.L. Travers the emotional center of the story, just as it should. Thanks to a towering Oscar-worthy performance from Emma Thompson, the end result is deeply affecting and devoid of most of the sugarcoating you would expect from a story with the Disney label on it.

Thompson exudes every measure of her significant talent for the demanded respect on the public outside and the wavering emotional guilt on the private inside of this real-life figure. This is far more prickly porcupine than any sort of dancing penguin. Her line deliveries and strongly interjecting interactions with Hanks, Whitford, Schwartzman, and Novak give the movie a surprising tension until her guard and shell is weakened. We see that coming with the engrossing flashback scenes in Australia with Farrell and Pamela's slowly evolving friendship with her daily limo driver played by Paul Giamatti, who might be the one man that actually gets her complicated psyche.

Unlike the trailers which are hyping up the magic and Tom Hanks' presence as Walt Disney, the depth of Saving Mr. Banks belongs to P.L. Travers and Emma Thompson. The always-perfect Hanks does a fine job playing the entertainment mogul and, before the film ends, he too gets his chance to shed new personal light on the historical figure he plays as it parallels to Travers. The actual resulting film of 1964's Mary Poppins itself, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, plays a very small ending role in Saving Mr. Banks. This film has its PG-13 seriousness and darkness and plays very much like last year's Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, when it comes to reflecting on the people and stories involved more than the movie being made.

Even with its serious tone, the warmth and magic of Saving Mr. Banks still shines bright. This is an ideal film experience for older fans of Disney who remember the days before Bruckheimer blockbusters and CGI creations. Hancock's film gives the right balance between its two time period layers to tell an engrossing Hollywood story with a cherished personal history. There's a good chance you will come away from Saving Mr. Banks seeking out both the original novel and the corresponding Disney film for a fresh interpretation and viewing. Maybe that's part of the master plan, but that's not a bad thing to have happen after a successful and worthy film.

Saving Mr. Banks premieres in limited release in New York and L.A. this weekend and exclusively here in Chicago at the AMC River East downtown before opening everywhere next weekend.

LESSON #1: BEHIND EVERY GREAT PERSON IS A HUMBLE BEGINNING-- Every single historical figure, celebrity, hero, villain, or great person started out as impressionable kid just like you and I. While the ladders to success and career tracks available to each person come in different sizes and forms ranging from intelligent hard work and self-made initiative to money and birthright, we all start as impressionable, wide-eyed clean slates of imagination. Walt and Pamela both have their humble beginnings that shaped who they become and preceded their greatness.

LESSON #2: THE FIGHT OF CREATIVE CONTROL OVER ONE'S WORK-- This lesson becomes about what constitutes the range between compromises of integrity versus changes and decisions that lower one's standards. For as much as Walt himself was protective of his own creation of Mickey Mouse before his empire grew, so was Mrs. Travers with her beloved Mary Poppins. The questions of what is flexible, what is core, what should stay, what should go, and what really matters are asked and asked often in the movie-making process. Every screenwriter and author can tell you how many drafts and revisions go into the original work before the finished product. The level of change and compromise is staggering and sometimes disconcerting.

LESSON #3: THE PERSONAL INSPIRATIONS THAT GO INTO AN ARTIST'S CREATION-- No matter the medium, I guarantee that every novel, poem, portrait, painting, song, film, or other piece of artistic expression is a reflection of the artist himself or herself, regardless of the level of fiction they say it is. Like an opinion of bias or a lens tinted by personal values, there is always personal inspiration that goes into an artist's work. That connection, unmindful of the size or depth, makes that creation important and significant to the creator. It's a piece of their own heart and soul, even with intentional changes and veils. Any artist that tells you they don't care is lying.

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