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Saving Mr. Banks
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by Peter Sobczynski

"You Have To Watch Out For The Poppins. . ."
3 stars

Last year saw the release of "Hitchcock," a film that took a potentially fascinating tale--a behind-the-scenes look at the production of Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Psycho"--and transformed it into a wretched and historically dubious craptacular that was more interested in trying to fit into the crowd-pleasing template established by "Shakespeare in Love" and scoring a few Oscar nominations along the way than in actually investigating why the film had such a seismic effect on audiences back in the day and why it continues to reverberate so strongly with moviegoers today. Now comes "Saving Mr. Banks," a film that evidently wants to do for an equally popular and groundbreaking screen classic, Walt Disney's 1964 live-action/animated hybrid adaptation of P.L. Travers' beloved children's book "Mary Poppins," what "Hitchcock" did for "Psycho."

The good news is that the end result is a much more agreeable moviegoing experience than "Hitchcock" (which I considered to be the single worst film of 2012's bumper crop of banality)--some of the performances are quite good and I enjoyed its recreation of Sixties-era Hollywood--but once you get past those superficial surface details, the painful truth is that the film has little to offer viewers, especially those foolish enough to actually want to know about the actual making of "Mary Poppins," other than two hours of a cheerfully garrulous film producer and the world's most intransigent Australian struggling to stick to their guns while hammering out a deal memo. I wouldn't dream of revealing who wins in the end but considering that the film was produced by Walt Disney Studios, I suspect you can figure it out for yourselves.

As the film opens in 1961, Travers (Emma Thompson) has been rejecting the overtures of Disney (Tom Hanks) to bring her book to the screen for more than 20 years for fear that it will be transformed into some kind of vulgar spectacle bearing little relation to her original work. However, money is growing tight and when threatened with the loss of her beloved house, she reluctantly ventures off to Hollywood for two weeks to make some kind of deal with him for the screen rights. That said, she is not one to be easily swayed by the glamor of Tinseltown and she has hardly arrived at the studio before she is informing Disney that she will not allow it to be turned into a cartoon, she absolutely refuses to let it become a musical and under no circumstances should Dick Van Dyke be cast in the role of Bert the chimney sweep.

This, of course, comes as news to screenwriter/animator Don Da Gradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard & Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), who have been charged creating an adaptation that will feature animation, songs and Van Dyke offering up one of the shabbiest attempts at a Cockney accent ever heard by human ears. The three sit down with Travers to try to hammer out something mutually acceptable but she strikes down virtually every single idea they present and constantly threatens to just walk away entirely. Needless to say, this attitude perplexes Disney even as he does everything in his power to charm her with no avail. Why, it almost seems as if there is something about the story of Mary Poppins that is more important to her than the gobs of money to be had if he can make the film the way he knows it should be made.

In a series of flashbacks interwoven throughout the film, we also witness the childhood of Travers, then known as Helen Goff (Annie Ross), that finds her moving to a remote area of Australia with her beloved father (Colin Farrell) and increasingly frazzled mother (Ruth Wilson). She loves her father unconditionally but the combination of his manic-depressive personality and his alcoholism makes him difficult to deal with at home and, after a string of embarrassing public scenes, virtually unemployable. As their lives begin to fall apart around them, Mom is driven to the edge of despair and all seem hopeless until the arrival of Helen's aunt (Rachel Griffiths), a plain-spoken woman who, armed with a parasol and a no-nonsense attitude, attempts to get the house back into order. In other words, what initially appeared to be a simple fantasy story turns out to have great personal resonance and once Disney realizes this, it proves to be the key to convincing Travers to let him have the rights to her book despite her misgivings.

"Saving Mr. Banks" is essentially two films in one--a biopic of Travers' childhood and a chronicle of the rocky road that "Mary Poppins" took to get from the page to the screen--and either one might have made for an interesting movie on its own. By trying to fuse the two of them together, however, they wind up canceling each other out. Although it would prove to be an enormous and long-lasting hit, "Mary Poppins" was anything but a sure thing when it was being produced--Disney had not at that time been especially consistent or successful in making live-action features, Andrews was cast after being snubbed for the lead in "My Fair Lady," which she had performed on stage, on the basis that she was an unknown screen quantity and the studio technicians were struggling to develop ways to actually bring the story to life in a convincing manner. This is all fascinating stuff but none of it appears in the film. (I don't even recall Andrews' name being mentioned at any point in the proceedings.) The childhood stuff is interesting as well but a.) there is not enough of it and b.) the more emotional tone generated by the material is inevitably disrupted every time it cuts back to the Hollywood stuff.

Another problem with the film is that there is never a time when anything really seems to be at stake. Granted, this is the kind of problem that does arrive when one attempts to tell a story where everyone knows how it turns out before it begins but even after taking that into consideration, there is a serious lack of dramatic import here. A lot of this is due to director John Lee Hancock's not-especially-urgent cinematic style that bathes even the darkest moments under heavy doses of sentiment and where every possible rough edge has been thoroughly smoothed away. The end result may indeed be a crowd-pleaser in the classic sense but it just feels that by removing even the slightest hint of true discontent, the film is doing a disservice to the audience and to the story that it is telling. In an interview, Tom Hanks admitted that P.L. Travers herself would probably not like "Saving Mr. Banks" very much and not only is that true, I suspect that Walt Disney would have loved it. In fact, considering its utterly uncritical and gee whiz approach to a complex tale, it is entirely possible that he might have actually made it himself with virtually no changes to its approach.

I have seen "Saving Mr. Banks" twice now--as I was really cranky the first time I watched it, I figured I would give it another chance--and while I cannot quite recommend it in full to anyone other than the most dedicated fans of "Mary Poppins," it does have its bright spots. Most of the performances are pretty good (the best of the bunch being Hanks, who effortlessly captures the charming Disney that we remember from his TV appearances while quietly suggesting the tougher man beneath, and Farrell, who does some of his best work as Mr. Goff), the evocation of Hollywood during the last vestiges of the studio system is nicely done and some of the jokes on display are genuinely inspired, including a hilarious one involving the film's most famous song. For the most part, however, "Saving Mr. Banks" feels more like a feature-length version of one of those "making-of" DVD featurettes that are too thoroughly scrubbed and sanitized to offer viewers much of anything of real informative value about the subject at hand.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24472&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/12/13 22:18:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2013 AFI Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/15/16 Callum Great movie. This review sucks. Stop making them. 5 stars
9/26/14 dr.lao I kept waiting for the moment when I no longer detested Travers. That moment never came. 2 stars
4/08/14 Heidi Embrey Best movie I've seen in a long time. Tom Hanks was brilliant as Walt Disney 5 stars
1/15/14 Al R Walt's friendly good nature wins over Pamalel foolish snobbery 4 stars
1/04/14 Heather Purplethorne Mary Poppins will never be the same after this modern day taming of the shrew. 3 stars
1/03/14 Natalie Stonecipher Glad Travers FINALLY deemed "Mary Poppins" rightly understood. I STILL don't understand it. 2 stars
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  13-Dec-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 18-Mar-2014

  29-Nov-2013 (PG)

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