Saving Mr Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013)

I was inevitably sceptical about watching this. It’s a film that was created, in part, by Walt Disney Studios and stars family-favourite actor Tom Hanks as family-favourite animator, voice-actor and business magnate Walt Disney. If there’s ever any story that’s going to sugar-coat the facts, it is this.

Fortunately for Saving Mr Banks, Walt Disney is not the main character. That honour goes to Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers. Even more fortunately, her portrayal is up there with the finest of her career.

The story centres around Disney’s ongoing pursuit of producing a film adaptation of Poppins, something that Travers had resisted for years due to her apparent hatred of everything the company has ever been associated with.

In particular, we pick up the main thread story as she embarks on a short two-week trip to the studio headquarters to meet with a small creative team consisting of music legends the Sherman brothers (brilliantly portrayed by Jason Schwarzman and B. J. Novak) and Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). Her main intent is seemingly to sabotage every ounce of creativity in the hopes that the film is never made, lest the essence of her perfectly sculpted tale be destroyed.

This is intertwined with flashbacks to her time growing up in 1907 Queensland. These are the real standout portions of the film, and they shy away from the watered-down story we are unravelling in 1961 Los Angeles. Colin Farrell‘s turn as Traver’s alcoholic father is exceptional and this story is key to understanding how she acts in later life. I wished we had been treated to longer in Australia, but this tale was never going to be a three hour epic.

Back in LA, the story moves along at a reasonable pace, adding enough humour to the mix to ensure we don’t forget how magical the film making process is when Walt is driving it. This often works, but I shook my head in disbelief at the scene in which Travers finally changes her mind and starts to support the film. I won’t spoil it, but I’d love to know whether or not this really happened. I suspect not. It is somewhat ironic that a story centring on someone’s dislike of the Disney filmmaking process should be treated in exactly that manner.

Hanks didn’t have a lot to work with and that’s to be understood. That said, he still gives a stellar performance and he can’t be faulted. He will be considered for the awards season regardless, but not for this film – Captain Phillips is a much meatier role for him to be proud of, and one that will doubtless be featured heavily when the awards nominees are announced in January.

The praise in this film, rather, should be heaped upon Thompson for successfully portraying what must have been an immensely difficult character to master. That she makes us warm so much to a person that was evidently so emotionally cold is something worth admiring, even if everything around her is so sugar-coated.

Saving Mr Banks is released in cinemas in the UK on 29th November 2013.

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