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Clueless Movie Reviews: “Saving Mr. Banks”

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are both in top form in Saving Mr Banks, as the two multiple Oscar winners command the screen in the roles of real life Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers and the legendary man who created Mickey Mouse and along with him an empire, Walt Disney.

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are both in top form in Saving Mr. Banks, as the two multiple Oscar winners command the screen in the roles of real life Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers and the legendary man who created Mickey Mouse and along with him an empire, Walt Disney.

The film tells two stories. The most prominent focuses on Travers’ very difficult collaboration with Disney and the team he assembles to adapt Mary Poppins for the screen, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing) and musical composers/lyricists Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, respectively). Disney, or “Walt” as he prefers everyone who works for him to call him, has a grand vision for how to bring Mary Poppins and her story to life on film, and DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers are eager to help make that vision a reality.

The only problem is that Travers wants nothing to do with that vision, or Disney himself, for that matter. Believing that the mogul will have Mary Poppins “cavorting and twinkling” on-screen, she refuses to sign over the film rights to her beloved character and her stories unless she approves of every word on the screenplay’s page, every costume, every casting choice, every last detail. And if a single cartoon character is even mentioned … well, she’ll pop out back to London with her film rights in hand just as quickly as Mary Poppins “pops in” to the house at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane.

The second story flows organically from the first. As Travers reluctantly goes to work with DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers going over the pages of the screenplay, she finds herself remembering her childhood in Queensland, Australia, when she was just Helen Goff, eldest daughter of Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), a banker who has a hard time holding on to jobs because, well, he doesn’t have a very high opinion of money. Boisterous, vibrant, and fiercely loving of his little “Ginty,” as he calls Helen, he encourages her at every turn to never stop dreaming, never stop imagining and believing in a better world and a bright future, no matter what the world throws at her.

But it’s not all happy and bright in the Goff home, as Travers’ unconventionality and his fondness for drinking lead the family into trying times. Just when things take a turn for the worst, Ginty’s Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) pops in the front door one day with a bag in one hand and an umbrella in the other, and promises she’s going to fix everything. Little does Aunt Ellie know that she brings the inspiration for one of literature and film’s most enduring and beloved characters along with her.

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By now, audiences simply expect greatness when they see either Emma Thompson or Tom Hanks leading a cast in a film. Thompson, for her part, has rarely disappointed, but in what she herself called the most difficult role of her career, she sets a new standard for performance in her portrayal of P.L. Travers. Eccentric, irascible, formidable yet capable of tremendous sensitivity and vulnerability, Thompson’s Travers is at the same difficult to like and impossible to dislike. She comes to Los Angeles prepared to be impossible to deal with, and the reactions she garners from the folks at Disney, who are all the very picture of signature Disney smiles, sweetness, and eagerness to please, are absolutely priceless.

But even when she has Travers at her most difficult, Thompson keeps audiences aware that it’s all in defense of what she’s created, the woman Mary Poppins, who is very real in her mind and who needs to be defended from the silliness that Disney would apparently drown her in to make a buck. “They have no idea what she means to me,” Travers says, and she’s right, so its easy to forgive her resistance and truculence once locked in a room with strangers who wish to turn her character into everything she shouldn’t be. It takes her reliving her memories of her life as Ginty, and her unexpected friendship with the kind, unassuming man hired to drive her to and from the Disney studios (Paul Giamatti) to open up to the very possibility of the film not being a monstrosity, and of Walt himself not being a monster out to destroy Mary Poppins.

As for Hanks and his portrayal of “the” Disney (the first time Walt Disney has been portrayed in a non-documentary film, by the way), it’s nothing short of transformative. Hanks has, of course, done exceptional work in film throughout his storied career, but rarely has he been called upon or directed to be very different from himself in the characters he’s inhabited. It’s those rare occasions — Big, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump — when his true talent and his commitment to roles shines, and its been those occasions when both critics and general audiences have most recognized his efforts. Saving Mr. Banks will or should be counted among those examples of his finest work in short order, as he simply becomes Walt Disney. Disney passed away almost fifty years ago, yet his larger-than-life public image is still instantly recognizable to modern audiences and especially to Disney lovers. Hanks adopts the Midwestern accent, the trademark mustache, the facial expressions, and even the chain smoking that Disney worked so hard to keep from view of the public and especially children, and it all rings true with what most should recognize as the “Man behind the Mouse.” He’s the perfect foil to Thompson’s quintessentially British Travers: a man whose bearing, whose manner, and whose very success in entertainment and in business could be defined as quintessentially American. To that end, her reactions to him and his irrepressible efforts to charm her are as priceless as the other characters’ responses to her fastidiousness.

The supporting cast behind Thompson and Hanks are all exceptional, with Giamatti, Whitford, and Schwartzman all turning in charming and memorable against-type performances. But aside from them and the leads, the one performer who simply steals the show in his every scene is Farrell. His heartbreaking portrayal of Travers Goff is easily his finest work in years, one that’s just as worthy of recognition by the awards commissions and the film world’s powers-that-be as those of Thompson and Hanks. Time will tell whether that recognition actually comes, but audiences should walk away from Saving Mr. Banks just as impressed with him as they are by the principals. He’s that good here.

Score: 5 out of 5

Saving Mr. Banks
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, and Colin Farrell. Directed by John Lee Hancock.
Running Time: 125 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.

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