Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Grade: B

Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks

“Saving Mr. Banks” is a testament to the cathartic power of artistic expression. It’s also an appealing showcase for a wide array of talented actors and an opportunity for Disney to pay tribute to its rich and complex history. Though it occasionally lapses into rote sentimentality and overdoses on manipulative melodrama, the film packs a punch with its nuanced depiction of a story that most people are only glancingly familiar with.

Director John Lee Hancock’s moving drama follows “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, “Nanny McPhee”) as she navigates the cutthroat film industry in the 1960s, butting heads with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”), screenwriters, musicians and all manner of studio folk. Travers yearns for a way to reconcile her troubled past with her present financial struggles by collaborating with Disney on a feature film version of her classic book. A clumsy series of flashbacks details Travers’ backstory, which includes a father (Colin Farrell, “Total Recall”) battling alcoholism and a nanny quite similar to the one with the magic umbrella in the book.

A sentimental drama like “Saving Mr. Banks” lives and dies on the strengths of its actors, and the entire cast delivers. Thompson and Hanks manage the most difficult feat: transforming their characters’ larger-than-life personalities into flesh-and-blood human beings. P.L. Travers isn’t just a haughty Englishwoman or a curmudgeonly author – she’s also a perceptive giver of advice and an emotionally troubled woman. Walt Disney transcends than his wildly over sentimentalized representation in the collective imagination because Hanks plays him as confident and cheery but also awkward and ruthless.

The supporting cast adds lively detail and occasionally wrings powerful emotion out of subtle moments. Paul Giamatti (“Cold Souls”) is particularly wonderful as Travers’ driver Ralph, whose simplicity appeals to the England-bred author. B.J. Novak (“The Internship” and Jason Schwartzman (“Moonrise Kingdom”) make a convincing team of songwriter brothers as Dick and Bob Sherman, whose enthusiasm is nearly matched by their capacity for great melodies. Bradley Whitford (“The Cabin in the Wood”), as the screenwriter Don DaGradi, plays exasperation to perfection.

Hancock and the screenwriters falter in connecting the main plot with the flashbacks, failing to trust the audience to piece together implicit themes. One particularly egregious scene finds a flashback to Travers’ father’s drunken speech intercut with a rousing musical performance from the film’s head musicians. It’s as if the filmmakers believed the audience wouldn’t be able to extract the subtext from the text.

Although the flashbacks are among the clunkiest scenes in the film, they provide an opportunity to revel in the excellence of Farrell, a gifted actor who often flies under the radar in discussions of modern stars. Farrell doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of his character, but his natural rapport with Travers (played as a child by Annie Rose Buckley) and his genial wit complicate his tragic narrative.

“Saving Mr. Banks” seems at times too focused on romanticizing the Disney of yore, but this failing is inevitable. Perhaps more significantly, this film opens a space for two actors at the top of their game to spar and connect. For that alone, “Saving Mr. Banks” is worth seeing.

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