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Review: Saving Mr. Banks


P.L. Travers makes her way from England to Los Angeles after persistent requests by Walt Disney, a filmmaker set on bringing her novel, Mary Poppins, to the big screen. As she refuses to let go of her personal story, she reflects on her time as a young child growing up in Australia, and exactly from where her idea originated.

Tom Hanks is Mr. Disney himself, while Emma Thompson is the cold and dismissive P.L. Travers. B.J Novak and Jason Schwartzman play the musical Sherman brothers, and Paul Giamatti is Travers’ dutiful driver. Colin Farrell also gives a great performance as Travers’ father during flashbacks to her youth.

As it so happens, one of most abrasive, unlikeable, and antagonistic of all movie villains this year comes in a Disney film, and looks an awful lot like Emma Thompson.

Of course, British author P.L. Travers isn’t a complete lost cause, but for much of Saving Mr. Banks, her snide remarks and venomous tongue will make you cringe when not staggering you back altogether. Her contempt at everything and everyone is furious and endless, as redemption seems a distant and faint hope.

Having been courted by Walt Disney for some twenty years, Travers reluctantly takes to Los Angeles from London to try and attempt to work with Mr. Disney and his team to make her cherished story of Mary Poppins into a film. Demanding complete control, and taking professional and personal jabs at everyone she comes across, Travers embraces confrontation throughout, dismissing Disney love and magic, deriding the company’s work as ‘silly.’

Indeed a Disney film about the history of Disney, this could so easily be a self-serving, glossy, beautiful portrait of the man and company. While it has all the wonder you would expect, it doesn’t avoid some rougher edges and darker moments, and entails a cumbersome but necessary dual storyline.

Those heavier moments take place in Australia just after the turn of the century (though anytime Travers snaps at her colleagues makes for some uncomfortable times as well). She is growing up on a farm with her loving father, faithful mother, and younger siblings, and all the children are kept in a proper state of blissful naiveté.

For a time, that is. As Disney and Travers continue to side step one another trying to get a film made, we are constantly taken back in time to Travers’ informing youth. While the transitions are sometimes jumbled, the past slowly reveals itself, as a young girl starts to learn of the problems of her prideful yet struggling dad (a fantastic Colin Farrell).

Still, the Disney glow is resilient, and the most fun of the film takes place in the studio where singing and dancing abound, despite Travers’ protestations. The first half gives way to increasingly compelling and profound conversations between Mr. Disney (Walt, that is), and Mrs. Travers.  Both her hostility and his warmth come off naturally, as does the earnestness of Travers’ driver played with such humility and optimism by Paul Giamatti.

While those sorts of magical moments are certainly telegraphed, they are done so well that you can’t help by give in. That is, after all, what the movies are about.

Should You See It?
Just in time for the holidays, both a great family movie and an awards season contender. Go check it out.

[star v=4]

Anthony Marcusa

A pop-culture consumer, Anthony seeks out what is important in entertainment and mocks what is not. Inspired by history, Anthony writes with the hope that someone, somewhere, might be affected.