November 9, 2013

AFI FEST REVIEW: “Saving Mr. Banks”


SAVING MR. BANKS:  Buy A Ticket – Positively Supercalifragelisticexpialidocious

SAVING MR. BANKS , which screened at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles last night before opening in theaters next month, is a moviegoer’s dream of Hollywood popular art, superbly melding history, personality, humor, sentiment and glitz with little fault or sign of strain.  There are those during this awards season who will say (very loudly) that it’s all too facile and that it lacks the gravitas and sheer misery that marks true cinema art, and they won’t be completely wrong, but such quibbles will matter little to those who buy tickets.

Those ticketbuyers, of course, were at the center of Walt Disney’s universe–the man, in the early 1960s still in the process of becoming the corporate behemoth–and Saving Mr. Banks is very much about that universe.  It tells the story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of the Mary Poppins novels, who in 1961 had resisted for 20 years the efforts of Disney and others to bring an inevitably coarsened, popularized version of her very British nanny to the big screen.  Finally, with a need for cash that challenged her scruples, she was persuaded to come to Los Angeles and meet with Walt himself (Tom Hanks), as well as the hopeful Poppins creative team, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composer/lyricists Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), in a last-ditch effort to secure her creative approval for a movie adaptation.

The conceit of Mr. Banks, written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is that the reason Travers was so passionately bound to every detail of the Poppins story as she had originally imagined it was that it was intimately related to her own childhood, spent in Australia with a loving but irresponsible and alcoholic father who, like the children’s father Mr. Banks in Poppins, was a bank manager (played here by Colin Farrell).  In this telling, Travers’s memories of her troubled childhood are intercut with Disney’s attempt to win her over; the process of seeing her very personal story corrupted by animation and songs drives Travers close to a breakdown until, with a direct intervention by Walt Disney himself, she’s finally able to appreciate that Hollywood’s translation will have its own different but powerful soul.

In real life, it’s doubtful that Travers was quite so acquiescent in the Disney version of her story, considering that she never allowed any of the other Poppins books to be adapted to the screen even after Disney’s film became a blockbuster hit, and that when she was in her 90s, she specifically excluded anyone involved with the Disney movie from working on the British live-stage musical.  But that divergence from reality is, in a way, what Saving Mr. Banks is about; the film is to Travers’s actual life what Disney’s Mary Poppins was to Travers’s book, a simplifying popularization but a marvelously satisfying one.

What is unquestionably true about Saving Mr. Banks–and documented by audio tapes played over the movie’s end credits–is the hell Travers put Disney and the Poppins creative crew through before she gave final approval for the film to be made.  Thompson, with her best movie role in years, is fabulously prickly as Travers, repelled by everything in LA from the weather to the rich food to the informality of calling people by their first names, yet never so much of a scolding cartoon that we lose touch of the buried emotions that are boiling underneath.

Hanks is as good here as he is in Captain Phillips, playing in completely different keys.  This is surely a sanitized version of Walt Disney (no mentions of unions, communists or Jews here), although brief references to smoking and imbibing alcohol have survived.  Still, it may be that no current actor other than Hanks could have had his seemingly effortless ability here to convey both affability and pragmatic manipulation, good humor and a will as strong as his antagonist’s.  It’s a bit disappointing that Marcel and Smith passed on the chance to make real characters of DaGradi and the Shermans, but Whitford, Schwartzman and Novak are wonderful company anyway as Travers’s main victims, and critically important since much of Mr. Banks consists of the team locked in a rehearsal room with Travers, facing her disbelief and wrath.  Rather than delve into any of those men, the writers have invented the character of Ralph, Travers’s chauffeur, to provide her with an American counterpoint, and the self-effacing Giamatti and Thompson play together as though they’ve been doing it for years.

The Australian sequences provide a reminder that the only thing Colin Farrell can’t seem to do is be a compelling traditional Hollywood action star; when he has a layered character to play, he’s marvelous.  Ruth Wilson as Travers’s mother and Rachel Griffiths as her rather familiar-seeming aunt are also excellent, and the young Annie Rose Buckley is an open book of adoration and exposed nerve endings as the heartbroken girl who would grow up to write Mary Poppins.  (This story of youthful tragedy leading to a literary life is the tale The Book Thief never convincingly tells.)

John Lee Hancock’s direction takes all Mr. Banks‘ elements and tones, and its very different kinds of actors, and mixes them together with extraordinary harmoniousness.  Not every fragment falls perfectly into place (the final set-piece sequence between Travers and Disney is somewhat pat in a Good Will Hunting sort of way, Thomas Newman’s score is a bit too on-the-money), but the ride is mostly an expert one.  John Schwartzman’s cinematography and Michael Corenblith’s production design deserve special mention for capturing both the Hollywood studio world of the 1960s and turn-of-the-century Australia.

The very precision and neatness of Saving Mr. Banks will likely be held against it by some as the year’s awards clamor starts to roar, especially in comparison to tougher stories like 12 Years A Slave and All is Lost.  An essentially trivial tale, we’ll hear, told all too gleamingly.  Walt Disney would disagree, and whatever one thinks of the limitations of his art or the legacy carried out by his namesake conglomerate, the man knew something about how to make movies.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."