Saving Mr. Banks paints a darker Disney - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Saving Mr. Banks paints a darker Disney

3 out of 4 stars

“Art imitating life” is only cliché because it is true.  But then how do you explain what Tom Hanks’s Walt Disney calls “the flying nanny with a talking umbrella” in Saving Mr. Banks?

A fascinating, heartbreaking story of one of the most beloved Disney pictures of all time has been assembled by Walt Disney Pictures itself and mostly manages to put its biases aside.  Sensitively directed and painstakingly recreated, this is one of the darker, more honest pictures for which Disney has managed to swallow its pride.

The story switches between two periods in the life of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the children’s novel Mary Poppins.  Travers has hit a wall financially in 1961 and has no choice but to give into a decades-long quest by Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) to adapt her novel into a feature length film.

She will only sign the rights over after approving the choices made by the Disney-iferous filmmakers.  This proves to be a challenge for them, as Travers has very specific requests about the design, casting, and writing of the film, not to mention her refusal to let the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) adapt the story into a musical.

Travers’s life as a young girl (a delightful Annie Rose Buckley) in 1906 is interspersed with this plotline.  Her father’s alcoholism and carefree nature prove trying on the family, and we begin to see some parallels between Travers’s book and her own life that are clearly making the surrender of Mary Poppins to Disney difficult.

Saving-Mr-Banks-Movie-PosterDirector John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) clearly cares for his characters, and allows them some moments of genuine darkness on top of sweeter ones.  And his well-tuned sense of pacing serves him well in a film that rises and falls on flashbacks and flashforwards.

If anything eludes him, it might be his ability to make the bright spots of the story equally genuine and less saccharine.  At times, you can see the Disney executive hovering over his director’s chair and forcing some “family-friendly” moments beyond the point of credibility (a scene where the Sherman brothers try to sell the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” overstays its welcome).

However scenes with more gravitas stay within the film’s tonal spectrum and are still quite powerful.  A period-flipping scene utilizing the song “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” is breathtakingly edited together and gorgeously acted.

This is ultimately Emma Thompson’s movie, and she plays P.L. Travers with an introverted energy that keeps the audience constantly wondering how her bubbly younger self could ever become the uptight woman we see.

The relentless rudeness would stretch belief if it weren’t for a credits stinger t

Wa;t Disney

Wa;t Disney

hat justifies every line she utters.  Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney with the right amount of nuance and charisma, although you get the sense that the filmmakers could have gone further in showing his darker sides (I suppose you can only ask so much of Walt Disney Studios when they are creating a portrait of Walt Disney himself).

Most every character in the 1960’s plot comes off a bit cartoonish, though this may have been intentional since it appropriately alienates Travers; unfortunately, it also makes the film’s style fluctuate uncomfortably.

In comparison, the characters in the flashbacks are well-fleshed out and slightly mysterious, appropriate since the period is seen through the eyes of a naïve young girl.  Among a handful of strong portrayals, Colin Ferrell gives a towering performance, making a loving, generous father-figure simultaneously frustrating.

Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay manages to have its cake and eat it too, combining the obligatory family-friendly themes with emotionally-driven dialogue without compromising the integrity of the story.

The film does fudge the history here and there, including a fairly contrived ending.  The result is that when the real facts are included next to the fiction, previously established character attributes will change for no apparent reason.  However the story is so enrapturing, these flaws are swiftly set aside.

o-SAVING-MR-BANKS-570The film is beautifully photographed by John Schwartzman, utilizing Travers-tidy angles, cinematic throwbacks to silhouettes and shadows, and alternating amber and candy-colored lighting for 1906 and 1961, respectively.

The production design and costumes never scream for attention, yet they still feel so clean and smooth in texture and shape that they might have been animated into the film themselves.  Thomas Newman’s score is oddly contemporary in orchestration, but the plays on the “Chim-Chim-Chiree” sting are cute yet foreboding.

Yes, the Disney Company just can’t help itself sometimes.  Its history must ultimately be put into a sherbet-limelight so that the veneer is never completely removed.

But what are bio movies if not slightly tweaked history?

Saving Mr. Banks‘s emotional ride and well-calibrated production values make for an enjoyable, heartfelt journey through the creation of an iconic film.  The darkness behind the mouse ears is interesting enough to make a great story, but we are given even more.

About the author

Mark McCarver

Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University - London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington. Contact the author.