Combustible Celluloid
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With: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, B. J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Bigham, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee, Rachel Griffiths, Ronan Vibert
Written by: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images
Running Time: 125
Date: 12/13/2013

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Savings Account

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Hollywood in general and filmmakers in particular seem to have learned that biopics are generally not very interesting, and can fall into clichˇ, when they treat the entire life story of a famous person. They can tend to skim over the surface of things, rather than digging deep. But films like Capote (and its twin, Infamous), Frost/Nixon, Invictus, Hitchcock, Hyde Park on Hudson, Lincoln, and now the new Saving Mr. Banks, show that simply telling one chapter of a life story can be twice as compelling. Watching characters respond to one situation, rather than a disconnected series of them, provides a great deal more depth.

Walt Disney is the most famous character in this movie, but the story belongs to one P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of the Mary Poppins novels, the first of which was published in 1934. It's 1961 and Travers has not published anything in a while. Her funds are low. Each year for many years, Mr. Disney (Tom Hanks), has contacted her about selling the rights to Mary Poppins for a movie. Each year she has refused, but this year, she reluctantly agrees to travel to Los Angeles for a meeting.

The deal they arrive at is this: she will go over the script with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and songwriters Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B. J. Novak). If she approves of it, she will sign over the rights. She insists on recording these script sessions -- which no doubt was an invaluable tool in the making of this movie -- and begins by arguing over the description of the setting on page one.

When not in script sessions, Travers butts heads with Disney himself, who here comes across as kind but powerful and uncompromising. When the moustache on one character comes into question, Disney simply states, "Because I asked for it." End of discussion. Travers also drifts into flashbacks about her childhood in the early 1900s, living with a loving, imaginative, but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). And in Los Angeles she is driven around by a big-hearted, but sad-eyed fellow named Ralph (a wonderful Paul Giamatti).

Of course, we all know how the movie ends. Mary Poppins was made, and released in 1964. It was one of Disney's biggest hits, resulting in five Academy Awards out of a total of 13 nominations. And, despite Travers protesting the ideas of songs and animation, generations of movie fans remember Dick Van Dyke dancing with the penguins, and tunes like "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" have become part of the zeitgeist.

Happily, co-writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith don't particularly focus on the idea of greatness or destiny unfolding before our eyes. Instead, they move into Citizen Kane territory, giving Ms. Travers a "Rosebud" of her own, something from her past that she wishes to guard and protect. Director John Lee Hancock allows this mystery to be revealed in its own time, and in a very poignant and respectful way. Hancock (The Rookie, The Blind Side) specializes in "true stories," but he's a graceful, grounded, intelligent director who seems to place characters and relationships above all. (He began writing screenplays for Clint Eastwood and now follows in Eastwood's no-nonsense approach to filmmaking.)

Indeed, it's surprising, given the description of this movie -- negotiations over book rights, a script conference, etc. -- how involving and emotionally moving it really is. The performers genuinely seem to want to be here, and this joyful connection comes through clearly onscreen. Of course, things culminate in a quiet, private head-to-head between the two stubborn artists, Disney and Travers, and it's a master class in writing and acting, an exercise in revealing and not revealing. Though Saving Mr. Banks eventually reveals all, it's a dear, sweet movie that can make you happy to be alive, sending you out into the world whistling "Let's Go Fly a Kite."

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