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Review: Saving Mr. Banks – Disney does Poppins

Posted by on December 20, 2013 – 7:48 am

Saving Mr. BanksI think there are probably a couple of generations that don’t even know who Walt Disney and Mary Poppins are, let alone Mr. Banks or P. L. Travers, so it will be interesting to see how far the title of Saving Mr. Banks and its relatively obscure premise carry this new film. Nevertheless, this behind-the-scenes biopic about the making of Mary Poppins and the backstory of Poppins’ over-protective author is still a wonderful film and a treat for fans of film history.

Set in 1961, Tom Hanks convincingly plays Walt Disney, the creator and huckster behind Mickey Mouse and the Disney film, television and amusement park empire. On a promise to his young daughters, Disney struggled for over twenty years to obtain the film rights to P. L. Travers’ novel, Mary Poppins, about the fanciful nanny with a flying umbrella who “pops in” to save the day for the dysfunctional Banks family; but the author refused to relinquish her beloved characters for fear they would be defiled by the Hollywood machine.

Although Hanks does a great job playing Disney, and it is fun to see him in the role, he is really not in that much of this movie (I’m guessing about 20%.) The spotlight shines mostly to Emma Thompson who plays author P.L. Travers, and the story jumps back and forth between her time at the Disney studios, where she was being wheedled to give her permission for the film, and her troubled childhood in Australia with her free-spirited alcoholic father (played by Colin Farrell) and suicidal mother (played by Ruth Wilson.)

Saving Mr. BanksDirected by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), this is a multi-layered and intelligent movie that not only depicts the conflict between Disney and Travers, it also explores the differences between their cultures and their creative methods, and examines the meaning of parenthood and the responsibility it entails, both with literal children and artistic creations.

AS a child of the Sixties, some of my first memories of pop culture were the songs from the Disney film, Mary Poppins. I honestly don’t remember a lot about the movie itself, but its catchy tunes like “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and especially “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” will forever resonate in the jukebox of my soul. So it was a real kick to see these songs being brought to life in Saving Mr. Banks, and for me those moments were the highlights of this movie.

Actors Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak play brothers, Richard and Robert Sherman, who wrote the magical music for Mary Poppins, and Bradley Whitford plays the film’s co-writer, Don DaGradi. They are all excellent in their parts, and Paul Giamatti also does a great job as Travers’ Hollywood chauffeur and confidant.

Saving Mr. BanksAs much as I enjoyed this movie, I would be remiss in my duties as a pop culture commentator if I did not mention the irony of this film, which in part promotes Disney’s respect for the intellectual property of others. I still have a bitter taste in my mouth over the way that Disney (the corporation) treated Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars; not the movie – which I loved – but the half-assed mangling of its name and promotion (or lack thereof.) If P. L. Travers could have traveled to the future to see what Disney did to John Carter, she never would have relinquished control of her beloved characters.

Film history buffs and anyone who loved Mary Poppins and/or its music will be thrilled with Saving Mr. Banks, it’s a well-made film even if you are oblivious to the subject matter, but you’ll get a lot more enjoyment from it if you know something of its past. Either way, this is one of the best movies of the year. (Stay until after the first run of credits to hear fascinating taped recordings of the real P. L. Travers interacting with the Disney people.) Grade: 8.5/10

Photos © 2013 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures