London Film Festival Review: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Goes Down Like A ‘Spoonful of Sugar’

By October 21, 2013
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Saving Mr. Banks

Who knew that one of the most beloved Hollywood musicals was born out of tremendous suffering?

Saving Mr. Banks is a colorful production with an old-fashioned feel, but beneath the surface is a darker tale. The film centers on the development phase of the 1964 film adaptation of Mary Poppins, which took 20 years to make it to the big screen. The reason for this was the book’s author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), refused to sign over the film rights.

As the royalties from her work dry up, Travers gives in and begrudgingly agrees to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Los Angeles. Disney, who Travers insists on calling “Mr. Disney,” is dead set on bringing the story to the screen, not only because he’s sure it’ll be a hit but because he promised his daughters he would.

She arrives in L.A. to find her hotel room filled with an overwhelming amount of stuffed Disney toys, which she finds appalling. She soon begins working with Disney’s longtime animator and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to create the film version of Mary Poppins.

Travers is extremely protective of her characters because, as she explains, “They’re like family.” The fact that she has yet to sign the rights over to Disney allows her to exhibit some serious diva behavior. When she insists that red not be in the film because she’s “gone off the color,” they’re forced to oblige. She’s also opposed to musical numbers and animation being used – which naturally poses more than a few problems.

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As the rocky development of Mary Poppins unfolds, we gradually learn more about the author’s past, when she was known as Helen Goff (Annie Rose). After moving from Australia to England as a child, her home life unravels as her doting father (a mesmerizing Colin Farrell) battles alcohol abuse and her overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson) grapples with depression. Eventually, her no-nonsense and rather Poppins-like aunt (Rachel Griffiths) pays them a visit.

Despite his failings, her relationship with her father is clearly a defining factor in her life and heavily influenced her famed book, particularly the character of Mr. Banks. For this reason, Travers is adamant that he be shown in a manner in which she approves.

Thompson has had her share of standout performances throughout her distinguished career but few showcase her abilities better than this role. She’s proven herself an adept conveyor of both comedic and dramatic content, and this part is a perfect mixture of those talents. Hanks plays a good-hearted, wish-granting version of Walt Disney that’s far from the man he’s been portrayed as in the media in recent years. But this is a movie by Disney about a classic Disney production, so who really expected anything else? Thankfully, being that it’s Hanks, you can’t help but be moved by this version of the ambitious tycoon.

Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), the film’s main strength is its impeccably written script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. It’s one of several industry blacklist scripts to rightfully get the green light in recent years, and their work on the page translates into some great moments on screen.

Unfortunately, the film runs out of steam somewhat during its second act when one or two unnecessary scenes are left in, like when Disney and the author take a trip to Disneyland. Thankfully there’s a highlight among the later scenes that tend to drag: a beautifully staged moment where Travers hears “Let’s Go and Fly a Kite” for the first time. A few cliched scenes follow, including an exchange between Travers and the driver (Paul Giamatti) she’s formed formed a friendship with.

But there’s enough of a payoff in the emotional climax to make up for this. After not being invited to the premiere of Mary Poppins, Travers attends anyway and watches the film. Though she turns her nose up at the animated dancing penguins, she draws parallels between her own life and the way the story plays out on-screen. Her reaction is one for the ages.

In reality, Travers’ relationship with Walt Disney wasn’t the unconventional fantasy depicted in the film. Travers was so put off by Hollywood’s version of her book that she refused to let them adapt any of its followups. When the stage musical was being developed years later, she stipulated that no one from the Hollywood production was to be involved. Yet Saving Mr. Banks sticks with a more whimsical account. One could argue that the film would have been better served by a more accurate take of the writer’s relationship with the studio, but again, it’s a movie by Disney about a Disney production. Thankfully, we don’t need too many spoonfuls of sugar to help this one go down smoothly.

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Justine Browning
Justine is a film and culture reporter whose work has appeared in USA Today, Indie Wire and The Huffington Post. She currently serves as an on-camera correspondent for MovieWeb and Cine Movie TV.