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'Saving Mr. Banks' review: Stuffed and squeezable

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

December 12, 2013

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*** (out of four)

At some point in “Saving Mr. Banks,” which is inspired by the true story of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) convincing author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to license the film version of “Mary Poppins,” you may want to shout, “They said one spoonful of sugar, not two!”

And, yes, it will help if you say that with the accent of an old British lady.

A double dose of sweetness probably can be expected when the Walt Disney company makes a movie about the Walt Disney company making a movie. Did Travers really cuddle up to a big Mickey stuffed animal in a departure from her otherwise salty exterior? I don’t know. Was Walt Disney a squeaky-clean saint who had all the charm of Tom Hanks and, in this case, merely wanted to make a Mary Poppins movie to honor a promise to his daughters? Highly questionable.

Yet it’s impossible to deny the broad likability of “Saving Mr. Banks,” which gets a lot of mileage from Thompson’s full commitment to Travers’ testiness. In constant bickering with the folks tackling the film’s script and music (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak), Travers personifies stubbornness, and that’s putting it nicely. She doesn’t want songs, animated penguins or the color red in the movie. Mr. Banks shouldn’t have a mustache, no matter what Walt Disney requests. Forget about making up words—in response to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” she bellows, “What on Earth are you talking about?”

Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) and co-written by one of the writers of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” film (which probably will feature far fewer stuffed animals), “Saving Mr. Banks” alternates between the Poppins business in 1961 and Travers’ upbringing in Australia, where she adores her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). The film means to show Travers’ personal connection to her writing and how a happy child became an adult crank, and there’s no doubting the story’s effective document of the very Disney-like reclaiming of innocence.

Still, during the somewhat ponderous flashback sequences, it’s hard not to think, “Get back to the funny business of moviemaking!” And while “Saving Mr. Banks” would have to plead guilty to endorsing the magic of Disneyland (which Travers calls a “dollar-printing machine”) and the splendor of its “Mary Poppins” film, it’s innocent of offering only self-promotion. That’s an important thing to note about a woman whose father taught her about the evils of the almighty dollar.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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