29 November 2013


Saving Mr. Banks is a cheeky bastard of a film. It's essentially about a corporate hijacking of someone's intellectual property, produced by the very same institution that was behind it, but becomes incredibly endearing via catchy tunes and nostalgia. Frankly, I didn't even have the composure to realise that this Disney-endorsed drama, about the making of 1964's Mary Poppins, was tugging me along on the same journey as our lead.

Our lead is Pamela Travers, the author who created the hugely popular series of books about a magical governess, and the film depicts the culmination of a long-running tussle with one Mr. Walt Disney, over whether or not he could make a film based on her stories. Due to financial difficulties, Mrs. Travers is forced to consider selling the rights to Disney, after holding out for two decades. She has the sneaking feeling that the House of Mouse's finest don't quite get the emotional significance of her character, and does everything within her power to prevent it from becoming a whimsical musical version. With cartoon penguins in it.

The way in which the film wins you over really is startlingly effective. If you went in with your mind dead set on disliking it, you could probably come out unmoved. But unlike other hagiographic films about films/filmmakers, Saving Mr. Banks always feels lively and exuberant. Compare it to this year's Hitchcock, a film which felt anecdotal and lifeless, so it's tough to get too annoyed about the Disneyfication of a story in which the main character initially thinks Disneyfication is the devil.

Even with prejudices in mind, you'd still have about a 50/50 chance of being won over, especially if you ever had any affection for Mary Poppins. Out of necessity, the 1964 classic is mined for emotional beats, and the songbook is evocative enough that it could have carried this film, even if the rest of it had been bad. But it's not bad at all, hinging as it does upon a blinder of a performance from Emma Thompson. Much of the enjoyment comes from watching her carry off the culture clash with gusto, determined that this film will be faithful to the magic as she represented it, rather than an overly fantastical version.

No matter who Thompson faces off against- sibling composers the Shermans, Bradley Whitford's exasperated screenwriter, Paul Giamatti's affable chauffeur, or even, at one point, a giant plushy Mickey Mouse that's found in her hotel room- she's superb. Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney is just what you'd expect from Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney, which makes him a reliable foil to Mrs. Travers' stiff upper lip. The thing that this film really nails is the comedy, and it's laugh-out-loud funny in all the right places.

Despite the PG certificate, it doesn't shy away from shades of darkness, even if abrupt flashbacks to Pamela's childhood in Australia tend to spell things out a bit early on. Colin Farrell plays her father, who had a huge influence on the subtext of her writing, but the rule of thumb for the flashbacks is this- Colin Farrell on a horse is distracting and annoying, but it's much better later on, when Colin Farrell is... well, not on a horse.

The emotional floodgates are really opened around halfway through, when Jason Scharzmann and BJ Novak, (who play the Sherman brothers brilliantly) start tinkling out Let's Go Fly A Kite on the piano. Granted, there's an aspect of sense memory in reaction to that song- it's one of the all-time greats from the Disney songbook, and always has the same moving effect on me. After that, the slightest thing tipped me into crying. Personally, I started blubbing around the time that you find out why Giamatti's chauffeur is so damn cheerful, even as I was aware that I was bring manipulated.

The worst anyone could really say about Saving Mr. Banks is that it's a powerful combination of sentimental manipulation and nostalgia for Mary Poppins. But crucially, it has a lot to love, and far less reason to take against it. Even in its slower, earlier movements, it has the joys of watching an Oscar-worthy Emma Thompson getting terribly cross with people. Plus, at its best, it's essential viewing for anybody who has ever loved that wacky little movie- and who doesn't love Mary Poppins?

Saving Mr. Banks is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Saving Mr. Banks, why not share your comments below? I would buy TWO tickets for a Sherman brothers biopic starring Jason Schwarzmann and BJ Novak, but for now, this documentary will do...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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