Review: Saving Mr. Banks (A Mouse House Full of Daddy Issues)

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Saving Mr. Banks is a surprisingly apologetic celebration of Papa Walt and the herculean effort required to bring Mary Poppins to screen. The drama escapes whatever litigious truthiness is basic to the situation (Walt pestered the rights owner to submission) and somehow writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith wrestle this into a story about recovering from damaging parents.

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) distrusts the man whose theme park is a “money printing factory” and certainly won’t allow her beloved characters (based on her blood relatives) to be subjected to the exploitations of his animation. “Will you train penguins to dance?” she asks. Her ignorance isn’t the biggest obstacle, though she does everything in her power to aggravate the creative team because what they don’t know is the entire operation rests on her approval. Woulda been fair for Papa Walt to tell them, right?

For a man who’s widely regarded as a ruthless businessman Tom Hanks’ Walt (never Mr. Disney) is America’s teddy-bear-papa. Like Travers he has a rough childhood behind him but unlike her he’s on a mission to revise his past with a more magical present: “We use our imaginations to restore order and give hope to the world” he says. This ideal is heartwarmingly patrician but ignorant of brass tacks, and proof Disney can still turn products into miracles (even if the master only exists as a cryogenically frozen head somewhere).

Flashing to the elegant outback, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) reveals Travers’ family history: her put-upon mother (Ruth Wilson), darling sisters and unreliable dad (Colin Farrell). A banker, Travers Goff looks to be an upright man, but his alcoholism upends the family while it facilitates affectionate fantasizing with his favorite daughter: Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley as a younger Emma Thompson). Collin Farrell swings for the fences playing the fanciful non-provider everyone loves—except his employers. He’s the inspiration for Mr. Banks of the Mary Poppins stories and the catalyst for all Travers’ storytelling. His role is huge—the stuff Best Supporting Awards are made of—and he has eternal life in the problems of these otherwise highly functional adults.

Around her Travers sees families beset with hardships, like her driver (Paul Giammatti) who’s daughter is wheelchair-bound and for whom he’ll be upbeat like their lives depend on it. It maybe the only time Giammatti has made sense being either tragic or heroic, but it won’t be a surprise if that accomplishment goes somewhat ignored—like Disneyland the film is full of shiny distractions. Casting TV wunderkind BJ Novak and indie superhero Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman Brothers looks like the result of a dare but the two are marvelous and I hope something can pair them and Bradley Whitford again before any of them retire. Emma Thompson, however, has been better in other things, which surprises me as I find even the mention of her name a strong enough reason to dedicate myself to a movie.

There’s a world of pleasure in Saving Mr. Banks and it may be the most crying over your childhood you’ll do in theaters this season, even if it’s the only film to be almost 100% about daddy issues and feature no female nudity whatsoever.

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