Release Date: December 20, 2013
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, including some unsettling images)
Run Time: 125 min.
Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Ginty, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman
After seeing the first trailer for Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks several months ago, I thought, "Oh, that'll be a cute movie about creative differences." By pitting a headstrong writer against the person - namely one Walt Disney - hoping to make her novel accessible for the masses, Saving Mr. Banks would basically serve as a family-friendly version of the art vs. commerce debate, right?
No doubt, much of Saving Mr. Banks highlights the considerable gulf between varying visions for a big-screen Mary Poppins adaptation. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the total gut punch explanation of why Mary, a fictional character, was so important to her creator P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, Nanny McPhee Returns) and ultimately worth protecting in the first place. Note: You'd be wise to have a good stash of Kleenex nearby.
As it turns out, there's far more to Mary Poppins than the endlessly cheery songs she belts out. She was also an all-too-real reminder of Travers' troubled childhood and having to deal with grim, unsettling realties that forced her to grow up much too fast.
In a series of beautifully rendered flashbacks, we're introduced to young Ginty (newcomer Annie Rose Buckley), which is the nickname her beloved father, Robert Goff Travers (Colin Farrell, Total Recall) gave her.
Ginty is clearly the one joy in Mr. Travers' disappointing life, but as much as he'd like to, he simply can't stop drinking. Naturally, this makes holding a job and paying the bills rather difficult, and the family is forced to move from Australian city to city more often than they would like, especially given the condition of Ginty's emotionally frail mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson, The Lone Ranger). After all, starting over again wasn't really starting over again, it was just more of the same.
Although he's typically known for playing much rougher, tougher characters, Farrell lends a surprising warmth and pathos to his role. As flawed as he is, we totally understand why Ginty unconditionally loves him, and these scenes are easily some of the film's best moments from an emotional standpoint.
Back to that first story, you know the one I'd been expecting, it's Thompson who winds up stealing this show. If it wasn't for her decidedly sharp edges as a woman who isn't easily seduced by the Disney machine, thinks California has an inordinately funny smell, and hates Jell-O, the movie might not be palatable. In a twist from one of Mary's songs, it's the sugar in this film - not the medicine - that wouldn't go down without Thompson's performance.
Not surprisingly, the story also serves as a nice bit of positive propaganda for the Disney behemoth, but if one checks his/her cynicism at the door, there's still a thoroughly likeable story that emerges as Walt (Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips) attempts to make good on a 20-year promise. This man who is used to getting whatever he wants told his daughters he would make sure that Mary Poppins—and that umbrella of hers—would one day grace the big screen.
The journey to the premiere is a rather uphill battle. But as Travers' book sales have dwindled and she faces losing her lovely London home, she finally takes a meeting with the very man she'd been turning her nose up at for two decades. Flying to Los Angeles, a funny exercise all its own given Travers' rather brusque demeanor, she has a lengthy list of requirements before even considering signing the rights to Poppins over. In addition to having full script approval, a writer's dream that rarely comes true, Travers also insisted the movie couldn't be a musical or feature any animated characters.
Anyone who's seen the 1964 film knows how that ended up, but Travers does put up a pretty good fight. After some careful persuasion, she eventually comes around on the music and reluctantly sits down with the intrepid songwriting team (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, who are clearly having fun) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford, The Cabin in the Woods). While their collective visions couldn't be more different (and this plays out rather humorously again and again), they find common ground in wanting to make a film that's worthy of the story.
And that's precisely what happens with Saving Mr. Banks, too. While probably scrubbed clean of too much controversy and carefully edited to serve Disney's legacy, there's still plenty that's praiseworthy about this film. The underlying message of unconditional love for the undeserving—the very portrait of grace that's at the center of every Christian's story—is alone a theme worth celebrating again and again.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking and cigarette smoking depicted. Ginty's beloved father really struggles with abusing alcohol
- Language/Profanity: A single use of dam-, a couple of misuses of God's name.
- Sex/Nudity: None
- Violence/Disturbing Images: As a man nears his death, he's shown coughing up blood. When he's under the influence of alcohol, he stumbles off the stage of a local event. A young mother considers suicide and starts walking into the nearby waters to drown but is saved by her young daughter.