Film Review: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

'Saving Mr. Banks' Review: Emma Thompson,

The behind-the-scenes story of 'Mary Poppins' has been brought to the screen with a surplus of old-fashioned Disney showmanship.

Somewhere, Uncle Walt is smiling. The Mouse House impresario’s protracted courtship of novelist P.L. Travers to secure the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” has all the makings of an irresistible backstage tale, and it’s been brought to the screen with a surplus of old-fashioned Disney showmanship in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Thick with affection for Hollywood’s most literal “dream factory” and wry in its depiction of the studio filmmaking process, director John Lee Hancock’s “Sunset Blvd.” lite (which opens Dec. 13 after London and AFI festival berths) should earn far more than tuppence from holiday audiences — and from awards voters who can scarcely resist this sort of mash note to the magic of movies (e.g., “Argo,” “The Artist”).

Given its now-classic status among several generations of moviegoers, it’s easy to forget that “Mary Poppins” seemed far from a sure bet when it first appeared in 1964, given Disney’s spotty record as a producer of live-action fare. And one can easily imagine a fascinating film of its own devoted to the production of “Poppins,” from the canny casting of Julie Andrews (after she’d been passed over for the concurrent film version of “My Fair Lady”) to the creation of the film’s backlot, matte-painted London and the pioneering visual effects of Peter Ellenshaw. But “Saving Mr. Banks” has a somewhat different story to tell, about the ways in which life influences fiction, the ownership writers feel over their creations, and the conflicts and compromises responsible for bringing some of the most iconic Hollywood movies into existence.

The film opens on images of blue skies and palm trees that suggest L.A. or Beverly Hills. But in fact, we’re in rural Australia circa 1906, where the young Travers (nee Helen Goff, played by newcomer Annie Rose) comes of age as one of three daughters of a harried mother (Ruth Wilson) and a loving but manic father (an excellent Colin Farrell) given to drink and more adept at inventing tall tales than at navigating the world of grown-up responsibility. This sets up the primary structural device of Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay, which continues to move back and forth between Travers’ formative years and her Disney (mis)adventures, gradually revealing the people and events from the author’s past whose aura can be felt in her most famous literary creation (including a stern aunt played by Rachel Griffiths in proto-Poppins mode).

With her sharp, clipped diction and a wrought-iron upper lip, Travers (Emma Thompson, superb) has been steadily pursued by Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years by the time she finally agrees to meet him in L.A. — a decision prompted more by financial need than by any real desire to see her work brought to the screen. So beyond the carefully manicured hedgerows of Disney’s art-deco Burbank studios (where much of the pic was shot) we go, as a game of inches ensues: the willful author, who’s never so much as laid eyes on a screenplay, resisting even the slightest change to her vision; and the canny family-entertainment magnate gently nudging the project toward the movie he knows the public will want to see.

Much of “Saving Mr. Banks” unfolds in a small rehearsal studio where Travers sits, stoic and unimpressed, as three of the movie’s principal architects give her their best pitch: Veteran Disney animator and “Poppins” co-screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and longtime studio songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (warmly played in spot-on characterizations by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Considering that Travers arrives steadfast in her belief that a “Poppins” films should include no musical numbers or animated sequences, they have their work cut out for them. (Though “Saving Mr. Banks” builds towards a cathartic happy ending, in real life Travers, then well into her 90s, authorized producer Cameron Mackintosh’s stage version of “Poppins” only on the condition that no one from the film version, including the Shermans, be involved.)

Hancock, who cut his own directorial teeth at the studio (on the inspirational baseball drama “The Rookie” and the underrated “The Alamo”) is sometimes a bit too on-the-nose with his parallel storytelling, too heavy with Thomas Newman’s bouncy score, and too eager to pluck at our heartstrings (at which he nevertheless succeeds). But if 2007’s “Enchanted” remains undisputed as the great, impish, postmodern riff on Disney iconography, “Saving Mr. Banks” is the unapologetically retro valentine Disney himself might have made. It’s a bit square, never particularly surprising, yet very rich in its sense of creative people and their spirit of self-reinvention — the Outback girl refashioned as a prim and proper British lady, the Missouri farm boy who turned himself into a cross between Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz.

And if someone had to play Disney in a movie, a better candidate than Hanks, himself a gleaming icon of wholesome American entertainment, is hard to imagine. The actor doesn’t try for the real Disney’s distinctive Midwestern voice (probably for the best, given his hither-and-yon Boston accent in “Captain Phillips”), but he captures all of his folksy charisma and canny powers of persuasion — at once father, confessor and the shrewdest of businessmen.

A couple of anachronistic touches (like a modern-day MGM logo glimpsed in an early airport scene) notwithstanding, production designer Michael Corenblith does a highly impressive job of creating sun-scorched, turn-of-the-century Australia as well as early-‘60s L.A., helped by the fact that both the Disney studio and Disneyland itself haven’t changed all that much in the half-century since. John Schwartzman’s warm widescreen lensing and costume designer Daniel Orlandi’s Kennedy-era costumes lend further polish to a uniformly solid craft roster.

Film Review: 'Saving Mr. Banks'

Reviewed at London Film Festival (closer), October 20, 2013. (Also in AFI Fest — opener.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 125 MIN. 

Production

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release and presentation of a Ruby Films/Essential Media and Entertainment production in association with BBC Films and Hopscotch Features. Produced by Alison Owen, Ian Collie, Philip Steuer. Co-producer, K.C. Hodenfield. Executive producers, Paul Trijbits, Christine Langan, Andrew Mason, Troy Lum.

Crew

Directed by John Lee Hancock. Screenplay, Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen, Deluxe prints), John Schwartzman; editor, Mark Livolsi; music, Thomas Newman; music supervisor, Matt Sullivan; music consultant, Richard M. Sherman; choreographer, Mary Ann Kellogg; production designer, Michael Corenblith; art director, Lauren Polizzi; costume designer, Daniel Orlandi; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital), John Pritchett; supervising sound editor, Jon Johnson; re-recording mixers, David E. Fluhr, Gregory King; visual effects supervisor, Vincent Cirelli; visual effects, Luma Pictures, Cosa VFX; stunt coordinator, Charlie Brewer; assistant director, K.C. Hodenfield; casting, Ronna Kress.

With

Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson.

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  1. What’s up, I wish for to subscribe for this website to obtain newest updates, thus where can i do it please help.

  2. Crescendo says:

    Not a badly kept secret, a poorly spread rumor. 2 British songwriters composed all the new stage songs for Poppins. Fact. Trust.

  3. Variety, not unlike much of what we think of as “the media”, show a certain forgiveness in some of these online film reviews; as if to stay in good stead (without becoming an outright flack for the studios), here — in this instance — the following:

    “Hancock, who cut his own directorial teeth at the studio (on the inspirational baseball drama “The Rookie” and the underrated “The Alamo”) is sometimes a bit too on-the-nose with his parallel storytelling, too heavy with Thomas Newman’s bouncy score, and too eager to pluck at our heartstrings (at which he nevertheless succeeds).”

    Regardless of a movie’s (lasting) effect…if a film is mediocre, then say that. No motion picture is ever “saved” by casting or production values, it’s merely “tolerated”.

  4. Am says:

    This review seems extra-lenient. Does anyone really think this is anything but (polished to a glittering shine as it may well be) holiday trash? Who is the director again? Oh.

    This shrewdly conceived movie, which essentially dramatizes the interplay of artistic creativity with the money-making impulse, while glorifying the inner machinations of a huge corporation (dream-factory) in the process, is just selling the idea of commercialization back to us, wringing out until-now unforseen droplets of money from the studio vault, and the memory of its own beloved creator. It does this by not only mythologizing the character at the center of the Poppins story, and its author (fine), but also those who worked so tirelessly, and proactively (you better believe it), to transfer the book to the screen. I mean really, is there any doubt what was (necessarily, sure) driving them? If not money, then what, just good old power? Heartwarming.

    Seems to me this ‘origin’ story sees all involved as artists above businessmen, thereby covertly peddling the concepts of capitalism, further dressed up (packaged) in the guise of ‘how the legend was born’ sentimentality, back to an already(!) consumerist society. This is distasteful, and what the film can’t escape signifying in the larger discourse. Will it vie for awards consideration in the industry? I don’t know, is the world we live in sort of cynical?

    I’m looking (hopefully) to Frozen as a sign of Disney’s continued creative relevance in the marketplace, not this.

    • Jones says:

      So a movie that reportedly cost less than 35 million USD and features and actual script and real actors, shot for a 2D presentation, is the enemy now? Why not rant against Iron Man 3, Pirates 4 or any other insipid 200 million plus franchise flick? I, personally, am more than grateful that there are still a few modestly budgeted, script driven movies in “real 2D” without an army of CG “characters”…

      • Am says:

        Point taken, regarding the selection of response. But I am only one person, and obviously not making a living from criticism (where an opinion on everything is required). I don’t know, for some reason, hearing people buzzing about this movie from that trailer, and then reading this review, which in the end lets the filmmakers get away with reprehensible lazy (you say 35 mil budget?!) ‘anachronisms’ like the new MGM logo, made me want to say something.

        The real issue is the quality of the review here. Believe me, I was surprised as anybody to discover, only a few short years back, that Variety had some of the sharpest, most sophisticated criticism out if them all. It seems to have gone a little downhill lately, to the regretable point I don’t know if I trust their veracity anymore. For more proof, just look at the over-the-top stuff proclaimed about Gravity out of Venice. I realize the film was probably perceieved as a sensation amongst the audience there, but the serious critics know (or should know, in my opinion) better. Does anyone else have the feeling something very upsetting is happening over there these days…

    • Wow, it’s like you’ve actually seen the movie – but more than likely haven’t.

      You would have me believe a more interesting story would be that Mary Poppins was the product of hand-wringing, ill-treated artists struggling against an unyielding boorish and jaded studio machine who is force-feeding tripe on a dim-witted audience unwilling to see, much less accept, the efforts of the truly gifted. Ya, that’d pack ’em in for sure, especially if you throw in a couple of musical numbers.

      Conceptually I’m not sure how being ‘shrewd’ is necessarily a bad thing in Hollywood these days. Especially when it seems in such short supply with so many other efforts.

      • Am says:

        Nothing wrong with being shrewd per se, but I didn’t exactly mean it as a compliment here.

        And no, I don’t think that would make a more ‘interesting’ story, or a better one than what’s already there. They’re both terribly thought-through ideas.

        And what would you have me believe — that despite what I’ve pointed to, we actually have a new Xmas classic on our hands??

  5. Enrique "Henery" Uglesias says:

    This was hardly the sequel to “Saving Private Ryan” I was looking for. Just Tom Hanks walking around with a Hitler mustache acting like Magnum P.I.E. being touchy feely with all babes on the Disney lot. Tom Groped his way though the film. But they never got to that “Epic Battle Scene” where the plains bomb the NAZI tanks, and Private Banks takes out his UZI and says… “This is for Marry Poppins!”
    And those kids from the Gnome Mobile they’ve grown up and got GOVERNMENT JOBS! Hollywood doesn’t make that much money anymore!

    Next Private Hanks will get his money from private BANK$! Then Mac Damon can give him many THANKS! Because he never switched RANKS!

    …….I WOULD BE YOUR HERO BABY!

  6. Just Confused says:

    Wouldn’t it be sumpin’ if this OLD-FASHIONED warm-hearted film…well told and acted… made tons of money…..and NEW HOLLYWOOD decided that a film concept LIKE THAT would be worth trying to copy? Wouldn’t that be sumpin’.

  7. MovieGeek says:

    I can’t wait for this!!!

  8. cadavra says:

    It’s a badly-kept secret that many of the new numbers for the stage version of POPPINS were in fact written surreptitiously by the Shermans–a delicious little irony.

  9. Lisa Guzzen says:

    Cannot wait for this movie. It looks amazing in the trailer and this review is great. Cant wait

    • I saw the film last night . This review is perfect. It describes the movie to a tee. i would love for it to do really well. It’s a feel good film and the acting is stellar, the script even better. Can’t wait for more people to see it and hopefully see it do well during awards season

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