MOVIE REVIEW: 'Mr. Banks' is saved by solid performances
December 31. 2013 12:27AM
By Pete Croatto Weekender Correspondent
“Saving Mr. Banks” begs for a bashing from the cynical set, of which I'm a longtime member, and not because Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney, a role that seems to have been arranged based on the decision of a powerful committee of grandmothers. It's a project designed to elicit Oscar votes and emotions while feeding Disney's ever-expanding synergy monster.
Director John Lee Hancock is not unfamiliar with this kind of mission. He dared you to hate the Oscar-winning “The Blind Side,” with its “aren't rich white folks tolerant” attitude. But its heart was in the right place. Quaint and corny, “Saving Mr. Banks” is ultimately endearing because Hanks and Emma Thompson, playing “Mary Poppins”author P.L. Travers, slide into their roles like they're old bedroom slippers. They make it safe to leave the cynicism at home this one time.
Travers has spent 20 years denying Walt Disney's requests to turn her work into a movie. But by 1961, when most of “Saving Mr. Banks” takes place, Travers' resolve has weakened. She is broke and every revenue stream is dry. Selling the movie rights is her only option to stay solvent.
She heads to California to work with the film's creative team, including old Walt himself, for two weeks. It should be a formality. Sign some papers, offer a few suggestions, and head back to London with a sack of cash. No luck. Travers has a set of requirements for preparing her tea, so the studio wants to use animation? Nope. The color red? Forget about it. And why does Mr. Banks have a moustache? It's a credit to Disney that he doesn't have Pluto and Donald Duck bury Travers underneath Main Street U.S.A.
There's a reason she's that way. Writers Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel adroitly include flashbacks of Travers' less-than-storybook childhood in dusty Australia, where her father (Colin Farrell) had a big imagination and an even bigger thirst for alcohol. Travers' life is falling apart, and “Mary Poppins” is the one thing she can control. That Disney's kids loved the magical nanny is irrelevant to Travers. The writing, as we discover, is her coping mechanism for the past. It's why she lives by so many rules. The more barriers in place, the less can go awry. Even Travers' clothing is a starchy and well-preserved armor that she doesn't wear as much as endure.
“Saving Mr. Banks” remains intimate, even when it veers into melodramatic obviousness — a sad Travers sleeping with a giant stuffed Mickey Mouse doll? Um, OK — because Disney and Travers are written as people bound by obligations: Disney to a long-ago promise to his daughters and Travers to her exhausting, rigid order. Hanks and Thompson don't allow their performances to buckle under their characters' emotional weight. After all, they have to see each other at work the next day. So do Travers' perpetually sunny chauffeur (the reliably excellent Paul Giamatti) and the film's songwriters (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak).
“Saving Mr. Banks” demonstrates that corporations — yes, even at the Magic Kingdom — don't make movie magic. It's people: moody, impatient, stubborn people. In this case, it takes Hanks and Thompson to make us care about the movie as much as we do.
Rating: W W W V
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