“Saving Mr. Banks” Movie Review

     Virtually anyone who loved "Mary Poppins" will thoroughly enjoy "Saving Mr. Banks", a superbly acted film which chronicles the struggle between the creator of the character and the film studio mogul who so desperately wanted to bring her to life on the big screen. As the film opens with it's first scene set to the subtle melody of "Chim Chim Cher-ee", we are instantly immersed in both the nostalgia of the original film and the setting of which this story will take place. Director John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") weaves the story of "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers by way of moving back and forth from key situations that occurred during her childhood, to the two week time frame in 1961 when Walt Disney himself made a pitch for the book's rights in order to turn it into a feature film. Essentially, Travers has a vice grip on her beloved character, as this is a film primarily about an artist having to begrudgingly part with her creation, though the accurate portrayal of the creative process behind the scenes makes for an intriguing experience in itself.

     Emma Thompson, in what is likely her best role and performance to date, is perfectly cast as the stubbornly uncompromising Travers, who refuses to allow anyone to change the overall tone of her literary work in the slightest and balks at the thought of the character being dumbed down into a children's movie. The film is organized with an unconventional edit that features Travers memories of her upbringing intercut with scenes from her visit to Disney Studios. Hancock uses this narrative style to compose a seamless connection between significant events in her childhood that directly influenced the "Mary Poppins" character, as well as the family she takes care of. This is where "Saving Mr. Banks" really succeeds, as this type of presentation allows the audience to make an immediate connection between subtle moments that occurred years before and how those moments directly influenced everything from song lyrics to how many of the main characters were constructed. The result brings incredible depth and substance to Thompson's portrayal of Travers which will likely garner plenty of notice in the coming awards season.

     In a true supporting role, Tom Hanks takes on the tall order of playing Walt Disney himself. Depending on the age of the viewer, his likeness or lack there of won't matter since many will be too young to have even seen footage of Walt Disney, much less remember him in real life. This means Hanks has been given the opportunity to forge a persona for Disney into the minds of nearly every audience member younger than age 35, a task not to be taken lightly. Hanks performance here is incredibly even throughout, really never evoking significant emotion until having to take matters into his own hands later in the film. Whereas he begins as a figurehead and later a tour guide, Disney ultimately must dig deep in order to relate to Travers and ensure her the beloved nanny in her books is in the proper hands.

     "Saving Mr. Banks" features a number of other outstanding supporting performances that round out the story and keeps the audience engaged the few times the main players are off screen. In the childhood scenes, Colin Farrell clearly stands out as Travers' father, who struggles between the love he has for his family and a brutal alcohol addiction. Paul Giamatti appears in several touching and important scenes as Ralph, the driver assigned to Travers by Disney during her Los Angeles stay. Also Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak excel throughout as Richard and Robert Sherman, the song writers who spent countless hours creating the classic songs we know and still love today while enduring the endless critiques provided by Travers. It’s a miracle they were able to deal with the frustration of working with Travers and still produce one of the most memorable and cherished musicals of our time.  Overall, this film features what is easily one of the best ensembles of the year.

     When the filmmakers who made last year's "Hitchcock" set out to tell the story of the famous director's road to making his most famous film, they likely intended on creating something along the lines of what Hancock has achieved with "Saving Mr. Banks". It's a shame various legalities disallowed the use of trademarked Universal properties for "Hitchcock" because they likely would've achieved something special if they had the kind of cooperation Hancock enjoyed in producing this film (As is, that film was still a marvel with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role). Simply put, the value in the scene that features Travers being escorted down the Disneyland Main Street by Walt Disney is one you can't put a price on. Though she wouldn't admit it then, that trip to "The Happiest Place On Earth" made her smile inside and created a turning point in her willingness to grant the rights needed to make "Mary Poppins". The location shooting within both the park and Disney Studios was crucial to ensuring those scenes were believable and allowed the filmmakers the ability to show Walt Disney really pulled out all the stops in his quest to get the film made. In addition, having access to archival audio tape reels of the actual creative sessions between Travers and the Disney creative team adds an authenticity that brings "Saving Mr. Banks" to the highest levels of filmmaking. GRADE: A