Movie Review: Saving Mr Banks

Time to get started on a new year of reviews! I’ve got a double for you to start things off.

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Starring:
Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell
Director: John Lee Hancock (The Alamo, The Blind Side)
Rating: PG
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Disney is currently in a position quite unfamiliar to the vast majority of the world’s entertainment media companies, let alone one of such gigantic size. Not only does the American monolith own the wildly successful Marvel cinematic universe, which surely has to be the most fruitful gamble of the movie-making decade, but its own traditional primary animation studio is in the midst of a notable renaissance of quality. They still have the very active geniuses at Pixar in their stable, and their recent acquisition of the Star Wars license has yet to boil over into significant fanboy argument (which it will, make no mistake, once Episode VII finally comes out). So for Disney to deliver a no-frills live action film as good as Saving Mr Banks right now is a little bit ridiculous. Surely they are only allowed so much good fortune at once.

Indeed John Lee Hancock‘s Saving Mr Banks is a gem of a film, a tale inspired by true events that draws liberally from Disney’s own storied history, specifically its lauded Mary Poppins adaptation. It is a peculiar, unexpected beast – a movie about the making of a Disney movie that is itself made by Disney – which may have made for an extraordinarily self-indulgent piece but ends up something else entirely. The lack of rights conflict only means the Poppins references can come along at their own pace and add both dramatic and comedic power to the movie. Familiarity with the 1964 classic is by no means essential, as Saving Mr Banks has universal appeal anyway, but is probably recommended nonetheless if you don’t want to miss anything.

The true story goes that stuffy Englishwoman P.L. Travers, author of the original Mary Poppins novel played here by the wonderful Emma Thompson, resisted 20 years of offers for the movie rights to her story until the threat of bankrupcy finally brought her, reluctantly, to Los Angeles to scope out Walt Disney’s flamboyant vision for an adaptation. There she had a number of run-ins with Walt Disney himself, as well as his happy-go-lucky production team, which eventually saw the film reach screens in the form it did. The story is dramatised for effect, of course, and doubtless takes some liberties with real events, but feels authentic largely due to the willingness of a rather handy supporting cast. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak (from Inglorious Basterds) are on hand to provide an audience outlet for Travers’ frustrating obstinance, as well as a handful of laughs, as the famed musical Sherman brothers, while Bradley Whitford plays the suffering co-scriptwriter and Paul Giamatti a chirpy cab driver.

This screen version of Travers is forced to contend with a number of painfully relevant memories from her childhood growing up in rural Australia, brought to the forefront of her mind by the events of the adaptation scuffle. It is through these flashbacks that the film gets most of its emotional thrust, and they are indeed emotional. The harsh, arid yellow-browns of the sunburnt country juxtapose deliberately with the colourful and cartoonish Disney headquarters, providing a surprisingly effective way for the film to do both drama and comedy in near-equal measure.

The flashbacks go to some pretty dark places and yet the LA set pieces provide a steady stream of hilarious moments. Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but it does, and that’s thanks mostly to Thompson, who links the two faces of the film together by showing us multiple sides of her character in a performance that is nothing short of a bona fide Best Actress nomination snub. Then, of course, there’s Tom Hanks as Mr Disney himself, a turn that is largely understated, and probably wisely so, until an absolutely mesmerising monologue sequence that elevates his presence to something truly memorable.

If I have one complaint with the film it is its eagerness to bask in its emotional payoff. There are perhaps a few flashbacks too many in certain sections of the film where a single scene has already made enough of a point, which given their tear-jerking nature feels a bit manipulative. Ditto for the sentimental ending, where less might have been more, and the backstory of one of the characters. But this issue certainly doesn’t impact all that heavily on the memorability of what is ultimately yet another Disney-made success in the 2010s. Saving Mr Banks is a film that largely manages to have its cake and eat it too, providing all-round entertainment the way not too many films can manage.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Genuinely both funny and poignant, Thompson leads a host of great performances
Bad:
Pushes sentimentality a tad too far
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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