Movie review

‘Saving Mr. Banks’: A spoonful of sugar, in mostly delightful ways | 3 stars

Updated: 2013-12-20T21:54:55Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

When author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) reluctantly arrives in Los Angeles, she is greeted by a hotel suite filled with Disney gifts.

Spotting a huge stuffed Mickey Mouse on her bed, she grabs it by the ears and tosses it in a corner.

“You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety,” she scolds.

Such is the case with “Saving Mr. Banks,” a biopic about the creator of “Mary Poppins” that works best when it’s being gently amusing — which is most of the time. But the film’s occasional stabs at dark melodrama too often belong banished to a remote corner.

In 1961, Travers is short on cash but loath to partner with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for fear of how he’ll depict her signature character in a movie musical.

“I know what he’s going to do to her. She’ll be cavorting and twinkling and careening toward her happy ending like a kamikaze,” she says.

But the author won’t grant rights to the book until she collaborates with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the prolific Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), who are composing the score.

The best scenes in “Saving Mr. Banks” involve the prim, condescending and very British Travers colliding with these resourceful Hollywood artists. Their first screenplay read-through is a hoot, with Travers poring over minute details (such as whether to spell out the numbers in scene headings) as if she’s the executor of a will.

Travers fancies stage legend Laurence Olivier in a role that the studio envisions best filled by TV’s Dick Van Dyke. She’s also uncomfortable with the idea of any songs being included. There must be absolutely no animation — which she terms “silly cartoons.” And would it be too much to ask that the color red doesn’t appear in the picture?

These clashes provide witty fish-out-of-water material, with the poised Thompson reveling in a role tailored to her pithy charms. Hanks offers a 180 to his laconic turn in “Captain Phillips.” His Disney is all folksy enthusiasm and imaginative vision, hinting at deeper motivations during a monologue about his lean days growing up in Kansas City. (Of course, a less flattering portrayal might have emerged if Walt Disney Studios hadn’t bankrolled this effort.)

What makes the movie potentially more intriguing but in actuality less effective are the numerous flashback sequences to 1906 Australia, when young Travers (Annie Rose Buckley) was being raised by a frazzled mom (Ruth Wilson) and a jovial father (Colin Farrell). In typical form, the Irish actor manifests a threat of danger even when playing a nice guy.

It becomes disturbingly clear why her banker dad is so quick to abandon his responsibilities to indulge in make-believe games. The film implies the key to Travers’ future happiness resides in addressing her family’s troubled past. But these sun-drenched moments in the Outback present a wild shift in tone. They are not fun, nor kid-friendly. These histrionics seem to be culled from a different movie.

Director John Lee Hancock is no stranger to real-life fairy tales, having helmed the sports bios “The Rookie” and “The Blind Side.” He delights in presenting early ’60s California, with its crisp Kennedy-era fashions and lollipop colors. His project is well-cast and sharply assembled. But like a lot of recent Disney projects, it’s more professional than inspiring.

“Saving Mr. Banks” will undoubtedly help turn on a new generation to “Mary Poppins.” However, much to P.L. Travers’ chagrin, it will likely steer people to the 1964 movie adaptation rather than to her books.

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