The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks tells a remarkable – if slightly fabricated – piece of Disney history. Emma Thompson plays P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. As the film begins, she is running desperately low on cash, forcing her to reluctantly consider something she has resisted for more than twenty years: selling the rights to her beloved novel to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Assured that she will have full script approval, Travers heads to Hollywood armed with a few simple rules barring the use of animation, the casting of Dick Van Dyke, and the inclusion of musical numbers. These things, of course, are completely contrary to what Disney has planned. His team, including screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), attempts to win over the perpetually disapproving Travers. The only person, it turns out, capable of making nice with the woman is the chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) assigned to drive her around.

In the early scenes, Travers seems like nothing more than a colossal pain in the ass, intent on being as inflexible as possible. Flashbacks, however, reveal something deeper. Colin Farrell plays her father, a loving alcoholic who inspires her childhood creativity as his own life is going down the tubes. Over the course of two hours, we come to see how Mary Poppins is not just some silly story to Travers; it's a deeply autobiographical work that she feels compelled to defend. Our sympathies shift somewhat, and this is one of the most intriguing things about Saving Mr. Banks. While it mines laughs from Travers' difficult nature, it also respects the idea that an artist's creation has meaning. We come to view Travers as honorable for the way she refuses to sell out her ideals.

All this is done with an entertaining breeziness. Saving Mr. Banks doesn't try to infuse the story with any sort of false importance. Instead, it positions itself as a character study about an emotionally scarred woman who, outside of her work, can't bring herself to open up about her past, even when doing so would make her life so much easier. Some will doubtlessly scoff at the portrayal of Walt Disney as a saint with endless patience and a knack for armchair psychology. The depiction works for the story, though, because he serves to loosen Travers up, to make her confront her own issues and finally deal with the fallout from them. Whether or not Saving Mr. Banks hews closely to the facts (which it only does to a point), it certainly provides a satisfying story arc that reinforces the idea that personal works of art resonate most highly with audiences.

This may be Emma Thompson's best performance. Hilariously crusty, her Travers makes a perfect creative foil for Disney. The theme park maven is all about magic and fun; she, meanwhile, is so rigid in her thought process that those things don't stand a chance. As the film moves on, Thompson reveals deeper layers of the character. Her pain and sorrow come though, as does her logic for protecting the tale of Mary Poppins. Whereas most of the Thompson/Hanks scenes are played for laughs, the moments between she and Paul Giamatti are the most heartfelt and sincere. (Giamatti probably won't get a lot of notice for the least showy role in the film, but he's definitely an MVP.) As for Hanks, casting him as Walt Disney was a stroke of genius. In many regards, he is a modern-day Disney, in the sense that he's almost universally beloved, and his persona is of a guy who repeatedly delivers something amazing. Hanks is not content to coast through this supporting role. Affecting a distinct speech cadence and demeanor, he turns in yet another first-rate performance, different from any other he's given before.

Where Saving Mr. Banks falters a little bit is in the flashbacks. Because their purpose is to explain Travers' mentality, they sometimes rely on shortcuts to make the point. For instance, the film uses that shopworn cliché having to do with characters who cough on screen. (If you don't know what it is, I won't tell you.) An important reference to someone who specifically inspired Mary Poppins is also oddly rushed though. The movie gets itself in a bit of an unavoidable pickle. Spending too much time on flashbacks would detract from the main thrust of the story, yet not developing them enough results in a few moments feeling just a touch formulaic. Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith make the right choice between the two evils, though. The Travers/Disney dynamic should be the primary focus.

The film's ending is also its biggest fudge, but it's hardly worth protesting. After all, you'd be hard pressed to find a “true story” that was completely, 100% true. Things always have to be adjusted for the sake of drama. Saving Mr. Banks adjusts them so as to tell a funny, often touching tale about how one woman funneled her life into her art, then resisted a well-intentioned outsider trying to tamper with it.

Two pieces of advice: 1.) If you're not up to date on Mary Poppins, try to watch it again first, since much of Saving Mr. Banks is predicated on knowing the story; and 2.) Be sure to sit all the way through the end credits for a very cool surprise treat.

( 1/2 out of four)

Saving Mr. Banks is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.

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