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Movie review: Even Uncle Walt would have approved

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(8 stars)

(125 Minutes, Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images)

Walt Disney would have greatly approved of "Saving Mr. Banks."

"Saving Mr. Banks" is a delightfully sweet film that tells of the process trials, tribulations, and pratfalls of how Walt Disney (the man, not the company) obtained the movie rights to "Mary Poppins" from author P.L. Travers. The movie harkens to the happy ending Disney movies of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and kind of transports you back to those simple days that included Uncle Walt on Sunday night.

Starring Emma Thompson as Australian/British author P.L. Travers, we are immersed for two glorious hours in the idyllic, utopian Disney world (pun intended) of 1961 when Disney invites Travers to the Disney Studios in Los Angeles in order to give final approval on the movie script for the now-iconic "Mary Poppins."

Now mind you, with Hollywood's recent strong penchant for morphing reality and truth into something completely fabricated for the sake of what they feel will sell more tickets, I was rather guarded going into this movie. Plus, as a proud former cast member of the Walt Disney Company, I knew I would react poorly to a movie that tried to cast Disney in a bad light (try staying out of politics, Hollywood. You hear that Meryl? I'm talking to you). However, I am happy to report that after a lot of research (don't let me fool you, it was Google searches over my lunchtime), most of what made the screen actually happened.

The plot mainly involves itself with trying to understand the genesis of Traver's famous children's book and her internal difficulties with releasing the rights to "Mary Poppins" to the world's most famous animator. The movie is beset with frequent flashbacks to turn-of-the-century Australia where we observe the development of Travers' relationship with her alcoholic, yet doting father. If I have one criticism of the film, it is that these frequent flashbacks became muddled and moved forward at a snail's pace.

Her father is adeptly played by Irish actor Colin Farrell and this may well explain why flashbacks occurred so often. When a director has an actor of Farrell's talent, often too much screen time is unnecessarily given. I would be curious if the part was expanded after Farrell was secured.

It is noteworthy that most of the mainstream media lambasted the darkness and lack of warmth of Emma Thompson's character in comparison to the whimsical charm of Uncle Walt, but I thought writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith and actress Thompson did a remarkable job bringing the depth and level of character to P.L. Travers in this film.

Yes, Mrs. Travers was a darker person with a very serious sense of her work, but one of the great charms of the film was the examination of the nuanced differences between American and British people. British humor is dry, full of sarcasm, and generally delivered with a deadpan expression, and Thompson nailed some of the best lines of the film. Americans prefer familiarity while Brits are much more formal and proper. Thompson, a Londoner herself, did a wonderful job bringing British haughtiness to the screen.

The relationship between Thompson's character and her U.S. limo driver, played by the always-brilliant Paul Giamatti, is one of the many pleasing aspects of the film. Giamotti portrays an amalgamated, nondescript chauffeur whose genuine kindness and warmth wins a quick friendship with Travers and rightly demonstrates that Travers was not a one-dimensional priggish Brit.

It is worth pointing out that the trailers are somewhat misleading in that Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, is the antagonist of this film. In reality, Hanks screen time in this film is severely limited. Hanks, while about five years younger than the age of the Disney that he is portraying, still has that cherubic face that makes him appear vastly younger than he is.

One of the forced aspects regarding Hanks' performance was Disney's smoker's cough. Legend has it that all cast members knew when Disney was approaching because of his cough, but the hacking stood out and seemed forced. Overall, Hanks seemingly played Disney well and captured his personality accurately, according to those who knew Disney personally, and short of a wonderful scene between Hanks and Thompson at the end of the movie there was not much there for Hanks.

I was disappointed that the filmmakers allowed a shot of Hanks' Disney stubbing out a cigarette. Disney, a voracious lifelong smoker who died of lung cancer, worked very hard at protecting his and his company's public image. The Walt Disney Company, which produced the film, asked for one item from the moviemakers and that was to not show Disney smoking. I guess I will never understand Hollywood, but I do not grasp what this added to the film or how it furthered the plot.

Special commendations go to B.J. Novak (The Office) and Jason Schwartzman for their portrayal of the Sherman brothers, who wrote all those wonderful songs for "Mary Poppins" including "Supercalifragilisticexpiailidocious," "A Spoonful of Sugar," and the award-winning "Chim Chim Cher-ee." (As a side note, if you have ever been to Disneyland or Disney World and wanted to kill someone by the time you made it through the queue of "It's a Small World" because of that stupid song, these are the guys who wrote it.) I found myself singing along with all the songs, especially as they wrote "A Spoonful of Sugar" for Disney. Thank goodness I was alone in the theater.

Especially noteworthy was the eye candy that the costumers and set designers gave us. The California-era 1960s dress, with its bright, vibrant colors, was brilliantly recreated, and the recreation of the Disney Studios looked like it fell out of the "Wonderful World of Disney" television show. Being a minor Disney aficionado, I went into the film looking for anachronisms and found none. IMDB pointed out that the train station in Fantasyland got a complete overhaul in 1983, but that is rather minor in my humble opinion.

This movie was a delightful two hours in the theater, but it falls just short of an Oscar contender as the early scuttlebutt had hoped. It very may well garner Thompson a Best Actress nomination, and also may well be one of the now ten nominees for Best Picture, but that would be more of a comment on lack of good movies from Hollywood this year.

Despite a few, albeit limited, shortcomings with the writing, "Saving Mr. Banks" is worth your movie dollar. Take the (older) kids and enjoy, because a little bit of the old-time Pixie Dust magic is back at Disney.

I give this film 8 of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!