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Saving Mr. Banks
Starring: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell
Director: John Lee Hancock
Studio: Walt Disney
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 min
Release Date: December 20, 2013

I grew up reading the Mary Poppins books, and I loved them so much that when I saw P. L. Travers’ name on issues of Parabola magazines, I bought them to read her contributions. I also have her wonderful About the Sleeping Beauty, which gave a fascinating spin on the evil fairy.

But I knew almost nothing about P.L. Travers, the person.  So it was with a sense of keenest, almost breathless anticipation, that I settled into the seat of the theatre to see this film, starring the one actress I trusted to faithfully render the author of Mary Poppins. 

We see flashbacks of Travers’ childhood in Australia , where her father is a regional bank manager, while in 1961 she wrestles with a painful decision, driven by financial need. Walt Disney has been trying for 20 years to gain the movie rights to Mary Poppins, and for twenty years she has said no – not holding out for a better offer, just flatly refusing to let anyone muck about with her characters. Now she reluctantly agrees to be flown out to Walt Disney’s studio to be wooed, cajoled, and entreated to sign a contract.

Walt Disney is Travers’ opposite: open where she is reserved, friendly where she vibrates between rude and hostile, tender where she is rock-hard, vulgar where she is refined  - the food trays and plushies!   As they slowly, excruciatingly, negotiate details of a Disney makeover – Travers loathes animation – it turns out that both of them have a proprietary interest in the character of the father, Mr. Banks.  Disney insists that he have a moustache; Travers wants him smooth-shaven.  Disney has had a hand in writing the script that portrays the father as distant, dismissive, and focused on business above all else – as his own dad had been. Travers wants Mr. Banks to be like the whimsical, playful father she adored. Disney is prepared for Travers to feel territorial about Mary, just as he had felt about Mickey Mouse, but the significance of the father’s role blindsides him, and almost derails the project. Once he realizes that they both have father issues, his genuine ability to empathize erodes her adamantine resolve, like water shaping stone.  They can understand each other; after all, both of them have spent their adult lives making themselves as unlike their fathers as humanly possible.

Tom Hanks’s portrayal of “Call me Walt” Disney is subtle, nuanced, and powerful.  

And I cannot stress enough how wonderful the supporting roles are played. Colin Farrell as Travers’ father is the very heart of the movie, as a certain driver (played by Paul Giamatti) is the soul.  Farrell’s performance is so brilliant, so moving, that no words can do it justice, at least not without giving away spoilers.  You simply have to see for yourself. In addition, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman brothers who wrote the songs for so many of Disney’s films are like 1960s versions of the Coen brothers, and Annie Rose Buckley, who plays young Travers, is luminous.

If you also have an eye to appreciate cinematography or costumes, you will realize that this film deserves Academy Award nominations for more than Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. It is beautiful! And the contrast between turn of the century Australian and 1960s American outfits is perfectly presented. It’s downright terrifying, in fact. I recoiled in horror every time the film switched eras and the screen went from soft-focus panoramas of outback wilderness and people in hand-stitched, custom-made clothes to sharp-edged depictions of women with bouffant hair-dos in off-the rack outfits and torpedo bras. Every detail is perfect, from the scan of Travers’ living room to the visit to Disney Land . The only false note – artistically and historically – comes at the end, when Travers is ultimately charmed by those plushies and animated penguins and finally seems pleased with the film.  Well, you could hardly expect a Disney film to depict the acrimonious truth. Even so, I strongly recommend this most unusual film, in which rational and intuitive elements dance together the way Mary Poppins and the folk of Cherry Tree Lane once danced with the stars. ~~ Chris R. Paige

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