[Screen It]


(2013) (Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks) (PG-13)

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Dramedy: Walt Disney and his staff try to convince author P.L. Travers to approve their movie adaptation of her classic work, "Mary Poppins."
It's 1961 and P.L. Travers (EMMA THOMPSON) is the author of the famous children's book, "Mary Poppins," a tale she partially based on growing up in the early 1900s. Back then, she was a girl by the name of Ginty (ANNIE BUCKLEY) who moved with her parents, Robert (COLIN FARRELL) and Margaret Goff (RUTH WILSON), and two younger sisters to a small town in Queensland, Australia where her dad took a job working at the local bank. She loved her dad's interaction with her and his imaginative demeanor, but his hard drinking and later illness eventually took a toll on him, thus necessitating the outside help of Aunt Ellie (RACHEL GRIFFITHS).

Because of her deep personal connection to that and the subsequent work, P.L. is quite protective of Mary Poppins and has resisted two decades of attempts by Walt Disney (TOM HANKS) to turn her book into a movie. But with nothing new in the works and no more royalty checks coming in, she finally agrees to meet with Walt in Los Angeles. Picked up by her hired driver, Ralph (PAUL GIAMATTI), the author heads for the Disney studio where she not only meets Walt, but also one of the film's writers, Don DaGradi (BRADLEY WHITFORD), as well as the songwriting duo of Dick Sherman (JASON SCHWARTZMAN) and Bob Sherman (B.J. NOVAK).

They've come up with a number of songs to include in the film, a thought that horrifies P.L. right along with any notion of anything animated appearing in the film. With final say of how the material will be handled, P.L. turns out to be quite the cantankerous handful for Walt and his team. As they try to work their magic on her and convince her of their artistic choices, she reflects back on her childhood that influenced her own work and the way she behaves today.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
People create art -- be that paintings, music, movies, novels or what have you -- for a variety of reasons. Some do it simply for the money, especially if they figure out how to crank out one successful offering after another. Others do it for the fame and perks that come along with being a famous writer, poet or filmmaker. There are also those who engage in such creation simply because they enjoy the process of creating art and/or seeing how it affects those who consume it.

The most interesting group in my opinion, however, are those who tell stories through their work as a means of exercising some sort of demon from their lives. Not the horror movie kind, mind you, but rather one or more issues from their past or present that have haunted or continue to bedevil them to one degree or another. One of the more famous of those tortured artists was, of course, Ernest Hemmingway, but many others preceded him and plenty more will follow suit.

One I didn't know about was Helen Lyndon Goff. If that name doesn't ring a bell, her pen name, P. L. Travers, might. And if that still doesn't do the trick, one need only say she was the author of the 1934 children's book, "Mary Poppins," and its subsequent sequels featuring that magical English nanny. Her tale -- specifically her childhood that partially inspired those works, as well as her dealings with the one and only Walt Disney in regards to his studio adapting her book -- now come to light in the delightful and occasionally emotionally touching "Saving Mr. Banks."

The movie -- directed by John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith -- is named after the patriarchal character in Travers' novel who was loosely based on her real life bank employee father (played here in multiple flashbacks by Colin Farrell) back when they lived in a small town in Queensland, Australia.

Rather than have that play out in a linear way, the filmmakers tell their tale in a back and forth fashion between the past and present where the adult Travers (a brilliant Emma Thompson) interacts with an increasingly exasperated but unilaterally focused Disney (the always reliable and likable Tom Hanks) as he tries to get the movie version of "Mary Poppins" made. The storytelling structure is designed as something of a mini mystery for the viewer who gets to see what molded the cranky author and has her so firmly set in her ways about how her beloved character will be depicted on the screen.

That alone is good enough to engage viewers, but the icing on the cake is the behind the scenes material regarding the making of the beloved 1964 film that starred Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. While those two performers are nowhere to be seen (as the story takes place before the shooting begins), the American songwriting duo known as the Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert -- who wrote more musical song scores than any other such team in the history of film) are present, including the introduction of some of their more notable songs (and Travers' reactions to them).

And if I've read correctly, this is also the first portrayal of Disney in a movie by someone other than Uncle Walt himself. Tackling such an iconic figure is always a risk, but Hanks nails the part, especially in a late in third act story explaining his motivation that stems from his own childhood traumas. What's somewhat remarkable is that this film is being released by Disney, a studio with a notorious (accurate or not) reputation for uber-controlling their properties and image. While his smoking habit is barely seen and only briefly mentioned, this isn't otherwise some sanitized, "Walt is a god" portrayal, and Hanks effortlessly portrays the icon, slight warts and all, as a real person.

But it's Thompson who shines the brightest as the cantankerous control freak author. Whether it's interacting with Disney, the songwriters (B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), one of the writers (Bradley Whitford), or even just her driver (the always enjoyable Paul Giamatti), the actress nails the part of an artist unwilling to cede control of her work, lest that somehow negate or marginalize its effect on keeping her past issues at bay.

The beauty of the film, and what makes it touching, is that her interaction with these other artists allows for an even greater exorcism of those demons. While the real-life aftermath of the author's reaction to the finished product unfortunately wasn't as cathartic and sweet as portrayed here, few viewers will know that truth and thus will likely highly enjoy the offering. I certainly did and thus rate "Saving Mr. Banks" as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 21, 2013 / Posted December 13, 2013

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