Tuesday, December 10, 2013


There's an inherent problem with director John Lee Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks," and it occurs within the first few scenes and continues happening over and over again. After being introduced to the film's star, the always excellent Emma Thompson, we flash back to a young girl in the early 1900s living with her family in Australia. Thompson plays prickly author P.L. Travers who penned the series of "Mary Poppins" books upon which Disney's widely lauded 1964 film is based. The young girl in the flashback is Travers, but instead of lightly shading in this real life woman's childhood, the screenplay from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith decides to bludgeon viewers over the head with backstory.

Travers is flown in from London to the Happiest Place on Earth, where she meets the one and only Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). All she has to do is sign the contract that gives Disney the licensing rights to her Mary Poppins, but the surly, unruly author quickly proves it won't be that easy. Thompson lights up the screen, landing quips and snappy barbs with panache. She's a treat to behold and registers enough pain to give insight as to why she's making working with her so difficult.

The parallel story running with this is Travers' troubled childhood with her reckless, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). These flashbacks come at an alarming frequency and occur whenever the main storyline starts to get interesting, rendering all sense of drama completely moot. The flashbacks unnecessarily take up half the running time and don't give Thompson enough credit as an actress. She isn't given nearly enough opportunity to read into her own character's backstory without the presence of head-banging obviousness.

"Saving Mr. Banks" is at its most fun and works as mainstream entertainment in the rehearsal rooms with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and clever lyricists Robert and Richard Sherman played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwarzman, respectively. It's delightful watching the men work and tip-toe their way around dealing with Travers' demands, staying true to their own vision and keeping her happy. And of course whenever Tom Hanks appears onscreen, it's -- spit-spot! -- as good as can be.

But the sappy awards contendor also boils down to pure self-indulgence. The appeal of looking back on Disney's most valued property only goes so far, running on the fumes of its nostalgia and proving that, once and for all, perhaps the company does a bit too much sugar-coating.

1 comment:

  1. Director John Lee Hancock manages to induce great performances from his cast.