‘Saving Mr. Banks’ a bio-dramedy about ‘Mary Poppins' backstory

by Bill Wine
Posted 10/15/20

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

The Hollywood bio-dramedy, “Saving Mr. Banks” …

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‘Saving Mr. Banks’ a bio-dramedy about ‘Mary Poppins' backstory

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Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

The Hollywood bio-dramedy, “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013), chronicles the genesis of “Mary Poppins,” the partially animated 1964 musical fantasy-comedy that received a through-the-roof 13 Oscar nominations and won five Oscars, including Best Actress for Julie Andrews.

Tom Hanks plays movie studio head Walt Disney, who has struggled for two decades to deliver on a promise he made long ago to his two daughters: that he would acquire the rights and bring to the big screen the beloved children’s book, Mary Poppins, and the magical-nanny title character, popping in on the fly with a talking umbrella, who was featured in the series of popular books.

But the British-Australian author, P.L. Travers, portrayed by Emma Thompson, although she has relented because she needs the money, has come to Los Angeles from London for a two-week visit to the Disney studio, intent on guarding her obliquely autobiographical, labor-of-love creation jealously and vociferously.

Travers is worried that the Americanization of the dialogue, the general “sparkliness,” and the planned fanciful animated sequences – rumors of dancing penguins abound – in this otherwise live-action feature will compromise her artistic integrity as well as that of the material.

And because Mr. Banks is based on her lovingly recalled, charming but alcoholic father, played in extensive rural Australian flashbacks by Colin Farrell, the strong-willed, uncompromising author further fears the Disneyfication of her background and memories.

So a bitter creative struggle ensues during which Travers objects to just about every aspect of the greenlighted project, and the behind-the-scenes artists feel thwarted in their attempt to do good work.

Of course, we know how all this will turn out.

The comedic screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, with its exploration of personality conflict within the collaborative creative process, should not be accepted as Hollywood gospel as it paints Disney as perhaps too saintly and avuncular -- no big surprise there: it’s a Disney flick, after all, and not a documentary. But this approach certainly makes sense dramatically, especially in the many adversarial scenes with the driven, resourceful Disney opposite the dismissive, obstreperous Travers.

Deft performances by Thompson, Hanks, and Farrell anchor the film, and the on-point supporting cast includes Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi, Jason Schwartzmann and B. J. Novak as the composing Sherman brothers (creators of, among other songs, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which is involved in one of the film’s most subtle sight gags), and Paul Giamatti as Travers’ engaging limo driver.

Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “The Rookie,” “ The Alamo”) delivers a warm and witty PG-13 love letter to moviemakers, one that Hollywood completists will eat up and that will fit into a perfect double feature with “Mary Poppins.”

 You won’t need a spoonful of sugar to make this medicine go down: it’s already there in just the right amount:

 Oscar-nominated for Best Achievement in Music, “Saving Mr. Banks” is delightful.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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