Review: 'Saving Mr. Banks'

(Two stars)

There's enough spin at work in "Saving Mr. Banks" -- a Walt Disney Pictures account of the making of the 1964 Disney musical "Mary Poppins" -- to make audiences dizzy, which is essential to the film's design. By neatly assembling an uplifting weepie out of a few choice lies, it's almost as pleasant a fantasy as "Mary Poppins" itself.

For 20 years, Walt Disney (here played by Tom Hanks) negotiated with P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) for the rights to her "Mary Poppins" books, and "Saving Mr. Banks" depicts the last stretch during which Disney finally wore her down. As scripted by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, and directed by John Lee Hancock (the risible "The Blind Side"), the film makes out the uptight Travers as the one needing saving by the cheery Disney. (Meanwhile, the title "Saving Mr. Banks" rather pathetically pretends to offer deep insight.)

Before granting the rights, Travers allows herself to be flown out for an "exploratory trip" to the Disney lot, where she makes life miserable for screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Travers nitpicks the script and production design as she considers whether or not to take the plunge with Disney and line a dwindling bank account. Regular flashbacks to 1906 Australia explore Travers' upbringing under a charming but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and suggest connections to the eventual "Mary Poppins."

The 1961 passages are certainly entertaining, especially when Travers is at her most tart: Examining the Winnie the Pooh plush toy, one of many gifted to her as part of her Beverly Hills Hotel suite, she frowns: "Poor A.A. Milne." Thompson gives a typically well-calibrated performance, practically perfect in each prickly, persnickety beat. But the script's accumulation of contrivances -- including a growing friendship between Travers and her kind and patient driver (a likeable Paul Giamatti) -- arrives at a climax that surely has Travers spinning in her grave. (Real-life spoiler: Travers detested the result of her collaboration with Disney, taking her final shots at it in her last will and testament.


As for Disney, Hanks' performance doesn't effectively imitate so much as suggest an essence. But the man remains slippery: He's part Barnum-esque huckster, part twinkly art-saint. Instead of seeming well-rounded, he comes off as a puzzling mass of contradictions, a businessman shrewd enough to pursue the "Poppins" property and ingratiate himself to Travers by recounting having once not sold "the mouse," but one who also seems to have never heard of a pen name. Though allowed minor frustrations and a few tight-lipped smiles, he hardly seems any more real than a movie angel, given to wisdom like "We restore order with imagination."

"Saving Mr. Banks" most resembles the 2004 film "Finding Neverland," a gooey "origin story" rewrite of entertainment history shored up with movie stars.

PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images. Two hours, five minutes.


Posted by Dave Cox, a resident of another community
on Dec 27, 2013 at 6:39 am

A very enjoyable, feel-good holiday film.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 27, 2013 at 9:33 am

Is this film enjoyable if the very idea of Walt Disney and the products of his imagination make me want to puke?

Posted by A. Reader, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Dec 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm

A very entertaining movie.. fairly accurate of Mary Poppins author PL Travers. The movie is good depiction of Walt D.
Watch Disney movie Mary Poppins first..then see Mr. Banks. It will make more sense to you if U do.

Posted by K.A., a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 30, 2013 at 7:03 am

Why is it PG.13?

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