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London Film Festival 2013: Saving Mr Banks - Review

Saving Mr Banks

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

MARY Poppins may have brought great joy to countless generations of readers and viewers but it’s doubtful whether too many will know that it was actually born from great tragedy.

John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr Banks, which closed the 57th London Film Festival in fine style, lifts the lid on the film’s transition from page to screen, and the excessive lengths to which Walt Disney went to persuade author PL Travers to hand over the rights.

It’s a massively entertaining film, liberally sprinkled with several spoonfuls of sugar, but which tugs at the heart-strings and succeeds in enabling viewers to see Mary Poppins in a vastly different light.

What’s more, it’s anchored by two terrific performances from Emma Thompson (as Travers) and Hanks (Disney) as well as notable support from the likes of Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford and BJ Novak.

The story picks up as a cash-strapped Travers is finally coerced (after 20 years of trying) to venture from her home in London to Hollywood in order to participate in the development of the screenplay for her novel, Mary Poppins, determined to protect her beloved characters and prevent them from suffering any kind of trivialisaiton at the hands of Walt Disney. As such, she objects to any songs, remains resolutely opposed to the use of animation and even – comically – at one point bans the colour red.

However, her journey also unlocks vivid memories of her childhood in Australia (told in flashback), where her jovial father (Farrell) encourages her to use her imagination to see the world differently, even though he is an alcoholic struggling to cope with the burdens of adulthood and a mundane job.

Hancock’s film, from a script by British newcomer Kelly Marcel, may be inclined towards the schmwaltzy but it’s a heartfelt insight into the origins of a children’s film classic that isn’t afraid to expose a dark underbelly at times (albeit with a PG-friendly Disney sheen).

And thanks to the quality of its performances, the film tugs away at the heart-strings without feeling too manipulative and may even produce a tear or two.

Thompson is terrific (and on Oscar nomination form) as Travers, dishing out acerbic one-liners with relish and sparring beautifully with Hanks, yet also tapping into the vulnerability and sorrow that stems from her difficult upbringing. But Hanks also masterfully portrays Disney as both an astute and determined businessman who determines to get to the truth of Travers’ cold heartedness.

The two make a formidable double act at the centre of the film, which arguably is at its brightest whenever they occupy the screen.

But there’s eye-catching support from Giamatti (as Travers’ kindly chauffeur), Whitford (as the continually harassed Disney executive Don DaGradi), Schwartzman and Novak (as songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, the men behind Let’s All Fly A Kite and Supercalifragilistic), and Farrell and Wilson as Travers’ struggling parents.

Hancock is also careful to drop in some reverential nods to Poppins, recreating key moments via the rehearsal studio and thereby tapping into the magic of classic Disney, while there are several moments that will succeed in putting a smile on your face to offset some of the more tear-jerking ones.

There are flaws, almost inevitably. Some of the flashback sequences detract from the main action involving Thompson and Hanks, while the film does feel its length at times and is never too damning towards Disney as a corporation. Indeed, there’s a general sweetness in its attitude towards dear old Walt that could have benefitted from some more of Travers’ early scepticism. But then this is a Disney backed movie, after all.

Taken on its own merits, therefore, Saving Mr Banks is an emotionally absorbing experience that confidently mixes melancholy with magic to sweep you along in feel-good fashion.

Certificate: PG
Running time: 125mins
UK Release Date: November 29, 2013
London Film Festival Date: October 20, 2013 (OLS, 7pm)