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USA, 2013, color, 125 minutes
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writers: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell

Review by Clarissa Wittenberg

Saving Mr. Banks was the film presented at the 2013 fundraiser for Washington’s Woodley House. This important organization serves and houses DC citizens who struggle with emotional and mental illness. I doubt I would have ever seen the movie if I hadn’t gone to the event.

Unlikely as it seemed at first, this is an interesting, even a delicate film, offering some of the charm of early backstage Hollywood reminiscent of The Artist and featuring wonderful performances throughout. It is not quite as comic as it pretends to be, but is doubly as touching emotionally.

Emma Thompson plays P.L Travers, the author of Mary Poppins and Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney whose daughter wanted him to make the movie. Annie Rose Buckley portrays the sensitive and beautiful young girl who grows up to be a world famous author. Colin Farrell is brilliant as a dissolute Australian banker on the brink of being fired and summons a life force to his role as the father who is determined to make reality as poetic and magical as he wishes it to be, but who is lost to rapidly progressing alcoholism that soon drowns him in his own blood.

Almost as a footnote, a nanny arrives in rural Australia to save the family because despite the title of the film, the father is unsaveable.

If we did not know that P.L. Travers and Walt Disney were real people, we would have found them brilliant inventions: people who so fiercely shaped their lives and art until they made their lives bearable. Who could have believed in a magical nanny or Mickey Mouse or a pastel Disneyworld? We are given proof that Mrs. Travers (as she insists on being called) and Walt (as he insists on being called) were in a major battle of wills. She was against “twinkling” and he was against harsh reality. (The actual battle was recorded on tape and serves as a coda to the film.) It is only when each faces some inner contemporary and historic reality that they are able to trust each other enough to make a film. 

Review by Matt Neufeld

In the early 1960s, Walt Disney—by then overseeing a hugely successful entertainment empire that included a library of already-classic animated feature films, a library of already-classic live-action films, a still-growing motion picture studio, a wonderfully successful television show and, of course, the incredibly successful Disneyland amusement park in California—didn’t really need to produce Australian-born writer Helen Goff’s 1934 children’s book “Mary Poppins” for any dire, pressing commercial, financial or monetary reasons.  But, as the wonderful world of “Saving Mr. Banks” deftly, eventually displays through a thoroughly inspiring, enchanting and, yes, magical film and story and exploration of the essence of the artistic muse, Walt Disney did indeed, on a deeper, more psychological, more intellectual and completely artistic level, need to shepherd the book—and its alarmingly stubborn and steadfast author, the almost-Victorian-era-oriented Goff—to the silver screen.  Walt Disney needed to make “Mary Poppins” in line with his inspired vision not just because he had made a promise to his daughters to make the film, not just because he knew the film would perfectly be in line with the Disney aesthetic, and not just because he knew deep in his heart that it could and would be a classic—but because this visionary man needed to make this film to exorcise his own past, inner, dark demons and turn them into current, outer, bright angels of song, dance, story, entertainment, hope and love.

And that, in turn, is the essence of the beautiful drama-comedy “Saving Mr. Banks:”  An exploration of what prompts visionaries, dreamers, dreamweavers, storytellers and artists of all stripes—and people in any other profession, for that matter, to expand the basic theme and message of the film–to simply create, to create to see their dreams and visions through to fruition, to fight steadfastly for those dreams and visions, to do whatever they need to do to pursue those dreams—and in the end, to successfully overcome those nasty demons and, again, turn the dark into light.  And that is exactly what Walt Disney did for decades—he pursued his wonderful dreams and visions to simply make the world a better, brighter place. That may sound corny or Pollyannish or like rose-colored-glasses-infused musings, but, hey–if there was ever a subject for whom good, fun corniness, Pollyanna and rose-colored-glasses applied—it’s Walt Disney and his dream for manufacturing entertainment that did indeed entertain folks in an intended positive, optimistic and upbeat manner!

So, in 1961, continuing a labored, admiringly enduring and difficult artistic—and psychological—decades-long quest to persuade the concrete-walled, hardened personality of Goff, who used the pen name P.L. Travers, to please, please,please legally agree to transfer the rights of her character and book Mary Poppins over to Disney for a feature film, Disney invited Goff to Los Angeles for two weeks to meet him, his creative and artistic team, and to see up close and first hand what they all had in mind for her character and book.  What resulted during those two weeks—in real life and expertly, entertainingly, enchantingly and at time uncomfortably but realistically shown in the film—was one big war of larger-than-life personalities, egos, creative visions, artistic visions, artistic dreams, stubbornness, psychology and business matters.  Goff was historically and realistically steadfast in her stance that Mary Poppins was not, from her stilted, Victorian-eraish standpoint, going to be Disneyfied, a musical, have anything to do with any animation at all on any level, would not have anything to do with dancing penquins, and would not be a lighthearted fantasy musical. Goff was famously stubborn in these demands, famously determined to keep Mary Poppins as close to her own vision as possible—which was worlds opposite of Disney and crew’s vision, and she was entirely unafraid to butt heads with Walt Disney himself.  Or the Sherman brothers. Or screenwriter Don DaGradi. Or Disney’s administrative, marketing or advance staffs.

Helen Goff, beset, bewitched and burdened by her own past, her own inner demons and her own psychological dark clouds, was one tough lady. At one point, she even told Disney she didn’t want to see any red in the film version of “Mary Poppins” (a somewhat crazy, random statement she made that was, thankfully and rightfully, completely disregarded and forgotten; there’s plenty of red in the classic 1964 film).  But she made plenty of other tough, hard, difficult demands during that memorable two-week whirlwind stay.  She was serious about no animation, she was serious about no dancing penquins, she didn’t really like the idea of the casting of the triple-threat and all-around talented Dick Van Dyke (at that time, one of the leading song and dance men in all mediums), she didn’t like the songs, she didn’t like the storyboards—well, you get the idea. Goff simply didn’t like anything that Disney, DaGradi, Richard and Robert Sherman or anyone else at Disney threw her way. She was stubborn, difficult, adamant and she clung startlingly close to her convictions and her beliefs.

And so did Walt Disney. And there is the basic foundation for the over-arching, original and unique—and, it must always be noted, entertaining, funny, engaging and insightful–storyline of “Saving Mr. Banks”—Disney’s passionate, dedicated and heartfelt mission to break down Goff’s Berlin Wall and bring her over to the other side, to the brighter, fresher, more musical and even more fantastical Disney side of life.  (To be fair, Goff’s wonderfully-popular “Poppins” books were all of those things—but they were a bit darker and fantastical, in a different sense, than Disney’s vision for the film.)   But Disney kept chiseling away at Goff’s seemingly impenetrable wall, and he persisted in trying to bring Goff over to the world of going to fly kites, taking a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, to singing about something so fantastical it can only be described as, well, as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!! 

The battle of wills, personalities, artistic visions, heartfelt beliefs and inner psychological demons presents the core elements for a thoroughly fascinating story, and “Saving Mr. Banks”—enthralling from beginning to end and never slow or uninteresting—fulfills and achieves the goals of that fascinating tale.  The film is impressive on this level because everyone knows the outcome—Goff finally relented, she signed the rights to the character and book to Disney and the musical fantasy comedy film “Mary Poppins” (1964, directed by Robert Stevenson) was released to worldwide acclaim, critically and popularly, becoming the Disney studio’s most successful film up to that time—yet you remain transfixed during “Saving Mr. Banks.”  Because you do indeed enjoy watching this battle of wills, you want to see who breaks who, you want to see how who breaks who, and you enjoy the characters, the story, the early ‘60s period presentation, and you enjoy the film’s light-hearted and very human direction.  You also can enjoy the continually elaborately detailed period production design, as planes, buildings, cars, suits, phones, food, dresses, limos, hotel rooms, studio rehearsal rooms, offices, and clothing are all meticulously detailed and presented in accurate early ‘60s fashion. 

And, of course, you’ll enjoy the crisp, funny dialogue, the somewhat dark and depressing sub-plot and supporting characters, the behind-the-scenes machinations of the artistic process, the behind-the-scenes battles between novelists and filmmakers, which continues to this day, and, of course, the expert acting from a dream cast that is just perfectly cast by the producers, Alison Owen, Ian Collie and Philip Steuer, and the continually impressive director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” from 2009, and “The Rookie,” from 2002). 

 To their credit, the producers and director decidedly chose not to drown Tom Hanks in prothestics and gobs of make-up to make Hanks look exactly like Walt Disney. Because, as is the case with any great, solid, talented actor, it’s not really about the looks, or the make-up. It’s about bringing a character to life from within—from the heart, from the gut, from the mind, from real acting.  That’s what characterization really is.  So Tom Hanks, who looks nothing like Walt Disney, completely overcomes that superficial element of just looks and completely becomes Walt Disney. With only a small mustache to match any of Disney’s physical qualities, Hanks thoroughly embodies and embraces and envelopes the upbeat, positive and creative man-child personality of Walt Disney. Using his eyes, his voice, re-creations of Disney’s constant, immaculate suits that he indeed wore to the office every day, studied mannerisms, and his voice, Hanks portrays Disney as you would want Disney portrayed—as a smiling, friendly (“Call me Walt,” he tells everyone, including all of his employees), likeable, even lovable man-child full of, yes, magical, fantastical visions and dreams. A man who would love to hop on the carousel and take a ride, a man who would love to introduce singing penquins and animation to Goff’s story, a man who envisioned vast fantasy lands of castles, walking mice, costumed characters, rides and thrills and chills—what would become the modern-day amusement park.  And a man who, indeed, brought Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Pinocchio, Jules Verne, conniving young twins, and the Swiss Family Robinson to the big screen.  You see this, feel this and enjoy all of this in Hanks’ charming, beguiling portrayal of Walt Disney, which really anchors the film.

Emma Thompson—no surprise, really—gives another exhilarating, exhausting—in its depth and impressiveness—and entertainingly expert performance as Goff.  This is a portrayal, performance and characterization that is complex, difficult, intriguing and multi-layered. The real-life Goff and Thompson’s Goff are so difficult and stubborn in her steadfastness, well, at times, it’s difficult to bear the presence and the screeching of the character and the person. But Goff remains watchable and interesting—and that is a credit, naturally, to Thompson’s acting abilities. She somehow takes this stubbornness and difficult nature and gives it meaning and depth and, eventually, as the “Saving” story progresses, meaning and understanding. It is no exaggeration to state that this is a role that is very difficult—for anyone—to portray, because you have to present an initially unlikeable and irritating person and character and move to a deeper level to make the audience understand the underlying reasons for that rigid personality.

And, again, that is part of what Walt Disney does in the film and what he did in real life—he pursued not just a signature on a piece of paper, but the real, in-depth reasons for Goff’s actions and personality. Disney was intelligent enough and insightful enough—in real life and in the film—to, again, hammer away at that wall to get to the inner workings, and to reach deep down to those inner workings and set them free.  And, as it turns out, Disney realized her was reaching into his own inner workings and working to set his own inner cogs and wheels and gears free to operate for the greater good.

There is a backstory that delves into Goff’s upbringing in rural, rustic, early 1900s Australia, and Colin Ferrell and Ruth Wilson have the also-difficult task for portraying Goff’s hardscrabble parents, who each had their own inner demons to battle.  A subtle, underlying sub-plot and sub-theme about the very real dangers, evils and life-threatening difficulties of alcoholism are to be commended. And this sub-plot is not gratuitous, but very seriously essential to the overall plot and story.  And film newcomer Annie Rose Buckley is a revelation as the young girl Ginty, who has to endure a difficult relationship with her father that would inspire and haunt her for the rest of her life.  “Saving” is Annie’s first motion picture, and if Hollywood is fair and decent, producers should sign her up for a slew of films, she is that good in this film. Annie simply shines and, like Thompson, Ferrell and Wilson, tackles a role and character that are essentially difficult to the core.  It is here, in the rough-and-tumble Australian country, that the sweet and innocent Ginty realizes that her family, her father—and the world—all need a Mary Poppins of their own.

Back in Los Angeles, Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak sweetly and kindly portray the incredibly-talented brother-and-brother songwriting team Richard and Robert Sherman.  In their acting, Schwartzman and Novak benefit not only from their talent, but from on-set consultation, insight, guidance and real-life expertise from Richard Sherman, who was, of course, actually there in 1961 and who dealt with Disney, Goff and DaGradi every day.  And Sherman supported the production of the film wholeheartedly and positively.  In many ways, you can see and feel Sherman’s consultation presence, as the Disney studio rehearsal, meeting and conversational scenes all have an air of authenticity and non-fakeness.

Paul Giamatti nearly steals the film, and does steal some scenes, as a fictitious character, an Average Joe limo driver named Ralph with his own life difficulties, who drives Goff and, eventually, befriends her. As Goff stiffly states at one point, Ralph is the only person in America who she takes a liking to. But their give-and-take is more than just small talk and friendly greetings and nice manners—Ralph talks sweekly and plainly and realistically, and, during the process of talking straight to Goff, he gives her added and needed insight into people and the stark realities of everyday life outside the artistic and entertainment bubble. Ralph may be an Everyman, but he is that classic film Everyman who embodies deeper wisdom and insight. It’s yet another great portrayal in a film stocked with them, and yet another great performance by Giamatti.

In the end, the happy ending—and this is not giving anything away, as, again, we all already know this outcome—all those nasty demons are reckoned with, aired out, and exorcised.  Goff ends up liking the film “Mary Poppins”—Dick Van Dyke, animation, the color red, songs and dancing penquins notwithstanding.  And she is able to set her demons free.  Walt Disney makes good on that long-ago promise to his daughters, and succeeds—with the Sherman Brothers, Van Dyke, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, Stevenson and a stellar crew of animators, cast and crew—in producing and releasing not only one of Disney’s greatest children’s films, but one of the studio’s best movies, one of the best kids’ film of all time, a film that broke ground, again for the Disney studio, in animation, a film that is chock full of those Sherman-penned memorable songs (Thompson told the studio that every time she heard “Let’s Go Fly A Kite,” she loved it—as does everyone on the planet), and a film that was a huge commercial success, a critical success—and just happened to be nominated for 13, yes 13, Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  Julie Andrews just happened to win Best Actress.  And the Shermans took Academy Awards for Original Score and Original Song.  And, somewhere along his own yellow brick road, Walt Disney also set free some of his demons.

And somewhere deep in the hearts of Walt Disney and Helen Goff, they were granted the eternal satisfaction of knowing that their enchanting, magical dreams and visions lived on in the hearts and minds of children—and adults—everyone.  And in a beautiful twist, “Mary Poppins” just this week—on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, two days before “Saving Mr. Banks” goes into a wide release in theaters nationwide—was included in the list of annual films to be eternally and officially preserved by the U.S. Library of Congress—a very high honor for a film.  And “Mary Poppins” just happened to be airing on the Family Channel that same night, Dec. 18. How’s that for poetic justice.

Helen Goff wrote several more Mary Poppins books through the decades.  She lived to see “Mary Poppins,” the film, become so beloved.  She died just 17 years ago, in 1996.  Walt Disney lived to see the success of his film creation, also.  But, alas, the great entertainer died just two years after the 1964 release of “Mary Poppins,” in 1966, from lung cancer.  

But the visions and dreams of these talented visionaries and dreamweavers live on today. In the hearts and minds of adults and children the world over. It’s a small world, after all. And as it turns out, as “Saving Mr. Banks”—and “Mary Poppins”–clearly show, some dreams and visions are indeed worthy of fighting about, and fighting for.  Even if it’s a dream of going out to fly a kite, taking a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down—or simply flying above the rooftops or dancing in the streets, shouting something as fun as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.