Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Review (PG-13)
I don’t think P. L. Travers, the writer that created ‘Mary Poppins’, would have approved of ‘Saving Mr. Banks’. It’s the kind of film that causes critics to throw out words like ‘enchanting’ and ‘delightful’… But in this case, they are entirely appropriate. It felt like a two hour music box, really, playing a familiar melancholy tune that reminds you of a memory that you can’t quite put your finger on, but when it winds down, you want to wind it up again… Did that sound like movie critic pap? Sorry.
The story of ‘Saving Mr. Banks, if you didn’t know already, is about the war of wills between P. L. Travers,the rigid writer of the beloved children’s book ‘Mary Poppins’ and Walt Disney, the (iconic) man who built an empire on the back of a mouse who wanted to bring Mary Poppins to the big screen for the masses. I say that, but it’s more about the former than the latter. The film is told in two timelines, one with Travers as a frumpish middle aged woman and one with her as a child (in flashbacks and dream sequences) that will explain why she turned out so frumpy . The adult Travers, while having had a moderately successful career , has not written anything in years and the money has run out. Walt Disney, literal Lord of the Magic Kingdom, wanted to buy the film rights to ‘Mary Poppins’ because he had made a promise to his daughter (so he says) that he would bring the book to life in brilliant Technicolor.
After twenty long years of ‘courting’ the reclusive, antisocial writer he might finally have gotten the opportunity to make that happen. The problem is, she still cannot bring herself to sign the paperwork, fearing Disney will turn her beloved creation into something unrecognizable to her… and turn Poppins into one of those silly cartoons. (she said it, I didn’t). In order to help seal the deal, Disney invites Travers to come to California to involve herself in the pre-production; to assure her that her creation will be in capable hands. But, he soon finds that he has greatly underestimated the sheer stubbornness of Ms. Travers, even in the face of impending financial ruin.
The soundtrack alone has a great deal of charm to it. It echoes the familiar tunes from Mary Poppins as well as having the cast of ‘Mr. Banks’ doing some of their own renditions. Right from the beginning, I thought it sounded similar to Thomas Newman’s soundtrack to “Lemony Snicket: A Series Of Unfortunate Events’… Which I liked greatly… And that was logical since Thomas Newman also created the soundtrack for this one, too. I guess I just like the xylophones.
There is no denying that the driving force in the film is Emma Thompson’s portrayal of the curmudgeonly Travers. Despite playing someone who is supposed to be unpleasant, there is never a time in the film where I didn’t like her. Every obnoxious line that she delivers doesn’t come out as rude as it’s meant to be. Ordinarily, that might sound like a failure on the film’s part and that perhaps Thompson’s range as an actress is limited to only playing ‘charming’, but that’s not a criticism. Thompson does indeed show extraordinary range in the film (And certainly ‘awards’ worthy), it’s just hard to not like her… And that’s one of the many strengths of the movie. I don’t think the movie would have worked as well, at least for me, with an actress (and director) that played the character’s faults a little more seriously instead of for (mostly) laughs.
Tom Hanks might not have been my choice to play Walt Disney. Obviously, it’s harder to play someone that most people will be familiar with than it is to play someone where there are no expectations. Tom Hanks is solid with what he does, as always, but I couldn’t help but keep thinking “That’s not Walt Disney”. But, it wasn’t so distracting that I couldn’t enjoy the movie. Colin Farrell is good as Travers’ father. Here, he’s probably best when Travers’ is remembering her more ‘whimsical’ memories than the more tragic ones involving her father. And there is one moment that may have been very poorly conceived from the writing to the execution. It’s meant to be awkward, but it comes off as maybe a little too weird to be taken seriously at a serious moment. But, overall the flashback scenes are as engaging as the scenes with Thompson.
Poor Ruth Wilson gets stuck in another film as she did in The Lone Ranger, where she isn’t given much to do other than stand there and frown until she needs someone to step in to rescue her, but there are a number of really good smaller roles in the film. None of them have quite enough screen time to qualify for one of those ‘Best Supporting’ awards, but none of the actors were wasted. Paul Giamatti probably has the part that would seem most important, but his part is scant, if providing the main character with a ‘mirror’. And Bradley Whitford might get overlooked being in the same scenes with Hanks, Thompson, Giamatti and even Jason Schwartzman, but he deserves to be recognized being maybe the biggest part of the best scene in the film (the ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ rehearsal).
This is easily one of the better films that I’ve seen this year, but then, 2013 has been a mile long buffet table of disappointments, lukewarm ‘hits’ and outright failures in my humble opinion. I haven’t seen as many films this year as I normally watch, but I’d like to think I managed to avoid some of the year’s biggest bombs by sticking to my gut feeling about what I’ve seen in movie trailers this year. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’, though, would probably be high on any of my lists of the ‘Best of’. There aren’t any HUGE laughs in the film, but it left me with a pleasant feeling at the end of it. It’s a sweet, amiable film that wants you to feel like you got a happy ending, even if you didn’t necessarily and I’m sure P.L. Travers would not have approved. but, I did.