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'Saving Mr. Banks' brings insight into 'Mary Poppins'

By Laura Traister
On January 29, 2014

'Saving Mr. Banks,' staring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, has its flaws, but is overall a likable, entertaining and enlightening film.
Directed by John Lee Hancock ('The Blind Side'), the film tells the story of Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) attempts to acquire the screen rights to the Mary Poppins novels, written by P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson).
The plot opens in 1961 as Travers travels from her home in London to Los Angeles to meet with Disney, who has been trying to persuade her for years to sell him the rights.
Extremely protective of her stories, Travers has refused to even consider selling the rights until now, as she finds her finances dwindling.
Shuttled from her hotel by an overly friendly limo driver (Paul Giamatti), Travers arrives at Disney's studio only to butt heads immediately with the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and music composers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) charged with developing the Mary Poppins novels for the silver screen.
She is vehemently opposed to the cartoonish fantasy elements and silly songs that Disney and his creative team envision for the film adaptation.
Her insistence on preserving the original story - initially somewhat reasonable - becomes outrageous as she opposes the creative team at every turn.
Intercut between the scenes in Disney's studio are scenes that portray the life of a young girl living in early 20th century Australia.
We watch her family fall apart as her affectionate but troubled father (Colin Farrell) struggles with alcoholism.
 These scenes seem misplaced at first, but prove significant as we quickly realize that they are memories of Travers' own childhood, memories that explain her protectiveness over her characters, especially Mr. Banks, the father in the Mary Poppins novels.
The strongest point of the film was undoubtedly the acting, which was superb across the cast.
Hanks was a joy to watch in the role of Disney, as he displayed the kind of versatility that won him praise for his roles in "Cast Away" and "Forrest Gump." He shone as the ever-cheerful Disney and even grew the iconic moustache to look the part.
Thompson, nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as Travers, somehow achieved the balance of her character's snootiness as well as her vulnerability. She showed commitment to Travers' pompous and cynical side, but also allowed viewers to believe that her inner child was still somewhere deep inside of her.
The interaction between Travers and Disney was the most humorous aspect of the film. Put a tight-lipped and proper British woman and a childlike entertainment tycoon in the same room, and chaos ensues.
Farrell in the role of Travers' father had the daunting task of portraying his character's constantly oscillating behavior: he had to alternately play a heroic father and a hopeless drunk. Farrell succeeded in communicating the complexity of his character and also made the audience feel the tragedy of a man watching himself throw his own life away.
The interaction between the creative team and Travers also provided a good deal of humor, and the music was an especially fun part of the film.
The sequence in which the team sings "Let's Go Fly a Kite" is a charming scene during which no one, not even Travers herself, can resist tapping a toe.
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score, "Saving Mr. Banks" composer Thomas Newman has written a score that captures all the struggle and joy of creating the film many people now know and love.
Since many audience members are familiar with how "Mary Poppins" turned out (animated penguins, silly songs and all), it was extremely interesting to see how it all came together.
History assures us that Disney did indeed acquire the screen rights and make a splendid movie, but it was fascinating to discover all the steps that he had to take to get there.
The film insists on tackling the difficult issue of unhappy childhoods, but also shares the inspiring message that people can overcome their painful pasts.
Despite these positive elements, the film dedicated too much screen time to Travers' back story.
The flashbacks were interesting for a while, but after the third or fourth one they became tiresome.
While Thompson's antics were no doubt supposed to reflect the reality of Travers' personality, her snide remarks ceased to be funny after a while and simply became annoying.
In the end, though, "Saving Mr. Banks" helps viewers see a beloved movie in a new light.
Viewers will undoubtedly gain a deeper appreciation for the effort that went into making "Mary Poppins" and any other movie they love.
With its magical performances and lively soundtrack, you just may leave the theater with a spring in your step, a song in your head and an urge to go fly a kite.

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