Movie review: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ is a true story that feels false, despite performances

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLEDecember 20, 2013 

  • SAVING MR. BANKS

    ••1/2

    Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and some unsettling images. Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell. Director: John Lee Hancock. Running time: 125 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 22 and Edwards 9 in Boise, Edwards 14 and Edwards 12 in Nampa, Majestic 18 and Village Cinema in Meridian.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is a pleasant movie about the making of “Mary Poppins,” filmed with grace and directed with care. It contains two outstanding performances, by Emma Thompson and Colin Farrell, and a performance by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney that is neither good nor bad but strange enough to be interesting.

The film is too intelligent and well-crafted to dismiss and too good to hate. Some people will love it, and at worst, most people will like it a little.

And yet … just something about it … “Saving Mr. Banks” feels like a snow job.

Maybe everything in it is true. Maybe Walt Disney really did have the patience of a saint. Maybe Pamela Travers (the author of “Mary Poppins“) really did curl up in bed holding a stuffed Mickey Mouse. And maybe she really was deeply moved by the finished movie.

If “Saving Mr. Banks” were 100 percent false and yet felt true, that would be fine. But this has the self-conscious whiff, if not of mendacity, then of public relations.

But then, you can’t really expect unbounded spontaneity when a studio makes a movie about its own founder and about its own movie.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is set in two different time periods, in the early 1960s lead-up to “Mary Poppins,” but with frequent flashbacks to Pamela Travers’ girlhood in the early 20th century.

In terms of story, the 1960s scenes are much more entertaining. As directed by John Lee Hancock, Colin Farrell doesn’t necessarily play Travers’ father as he really was, but rather the father that was recorded in a little girl’s memory.

That bond, between a father that’s hopeless in the world and the little girl who worships him, is the most poignant thing in the film.

The frequent shifts back and forth through time constitute a clumsiness of the screenplay, which Hancock and cinematographer John Schwartzman handle with panache.

Tom Hanks doesn’t quite seem like Walt Disney but more like Tom Hanks in a wig and a mustache. His Midwestern accent goes in and out, with a dash of John Huston here and some Lionel Barrymore there. Really, there is no believing him for a second, and yet, like the movie stars of the classic era, Hanks automatically gets some special exemption, because there’s no disbelieving him either. He just leaves us accepting that if Disney were a lot like Hanks, he’d have acted exactly like that.

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