Walt Disney, the man, has never been portrayed in a work of fiction before, until now. The much heralded, much anticipated Saving Mr. Banks (opening today) features Uncle Walt in a supporting role, in a tale that is based on the true story of the making of Mary Poppins, the Disney classic that almost never was.
Emma Thompson plays P.L. Travers, the author who wrote the book that the movie was based on. She is in financial ruins and although her beloved Mary Poppins character is near and dear to her heart, she begrudgingly agrees to travel to the US to visit with Disney (Tom Hanks) to discuss selling him the rights.
Travers is portrayed as an uppity British marm and she is not too keen on turning Mary Poppins into some sort of a joke. She demands that it is not a musical and that it absolutely, 100%, does not contain any animation.
Of course, the character and story are important to her because it is basically the story of her childhood. We see her past play out in flashbacks, with her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) and suffering mother, Margaret (Ruth Wilson) taking on the inspirations of Mr. & Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins.
The disappointing problem with Saving Mr. Banks is that it spends way too much time in the past. Most of the good stuff occurs with the interactions between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney - two sides of a coin if there ever were - and the hilarious scenes that take place between Travers and Disney's creative staff on the film (Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as Robert & Richard Sherman, the musical duo responsible for the classic songs in the film). But it seems the actual story of their encounter was too thin to explore on its own.
Paul Giamatti plays Ralph, Travers's driver while on Disney property. He forms a relationship with Travers that gives us some interesting and unexpected moments, but this relationship too seemed a bit under-cooked.
We must remember that this is Disney's version of Disney. There probably will be no other version, so we take what we can get. There are allusions to his smoking habit (the probable cause of his lung cancer, Uncle Walt was reportedly never without a cigar) and flashes of his real-life stubbornness. But they've found the fan-friendliest actor on the planet in Hanks, who portrays Walt as a kid in candyland. Maybe he was. But something tells me he was a shrewd business man too, a theory that gets no exploration here.
The screenplay takes things a bit too literally too. Must every single event from the present echo a heartache from Travers's past? If someone sneezes at Disney studio, expect a flashback showing how sneezing reminded her of some bad memory from childhood. Eventually, these small occurrences feel contrived. True to many Disney films (the sub-par ones, mostly), there is an emotional manipulation taking place here and it sucks away any real lingering meaning.
Still, Saving Mr. Banks could have been saved had it just tilted its focus to the relationship between Disney and Travers. Instead it is an uneven letdown. There is spirit in all of Hanks's scenes, but every time we flashback its almost like we're watching someone flip between two channels late at night, between a great story and a mediocre one.
Surely, the arrival of Walt Disney in a dramatic film should have felt more magical, and that's a hard one to swallow...spoonful of sugar and all.
Run Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Ruth Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Rachel Griffiths, Bradley Whitford, Victoria Summer, B.J. Novak
Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Alamo, The Rookie)
Opens locally on Friday, Dec 20, 2013 (check for show times).
Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.
How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time