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Making Disney’s Mary Poppins was anything but merry, as the winning Saving Mr. Banks shows.

BY ROD
LOTT

If there’s one thing Hollywood loves more than itself, it’s stories about itself. From The Artist to Argo, these films have translated into Tinseltown’s ultimate display of self-affection: Oscar gold.

This holiday season, Hollywood’s gift to itself — oh, you shouldn’t have! — is also Walt Disney Pictures’ Christmas offering to moviegoers: Saving Mr. Banks, a depiction of the trying times that went into the making of Disney’s 1964 classic Mary Poppins. Unwrapping it, you may be surprised to learn that so much material is there, the name “Julie Andrews” is practically MIA across both of Banks’ hours.

In playing P.L. Travers, the British author of the beloved Mary Poppins novels, Emma Thompson (Beautiful Creatures) redefines a crude phrase that includes the words “stick,” “up” and “hindquarters.” Single, elderly and curmudgeonly, Travers faces dire financial straits yet is reluctant to reach for the golden chunk of cheese dangling in front of her upturned nose: a contract granting film rights to Mr. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). While the deal certainly would prove lucrative to her, she fears the damage his stupid songs and infantile animation would do to her precious creation.

A deeper reason exists, which slowly but surely bubbles to the surface in golden-hued flashbacks featuring Travers as a child (played by newcomer Annie Rose Buckley), and it has everything to do with her troubled father (Colin Farrell, Seven Psychopaths).

Although prognosticators suggest Hanks will score a pair of Academy Award nominations this year — Best Actor for Captain Phillips and Best Supporting Actor for Saving Mr. Banks — the true contender from this film is Farrell, who’s wonderful in what could be the finest work he has ever done. That’s not to slight Hanks, who portrays Disney as a Missouri-bred huckster not used to having the word “no” reach his ears, but Farrell’s performance is the one that gives Banks some weight that anchors the project to prevent a drift into pure saccharine puffery.

There is that — it’s directed by The Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock, after all — but not just that. Banks is best when illustrating the creative battles, even if they’re oversimplified with
a spoonful of sugar. Today, as was four decades prior, it’s a marvel
any movie can be good, given how torturous the studio’s by-committee
process is. Here, Travers sits in one corner of the ring; Team Disney on
the other.

Banks is best when illustrating creative battles.

In these scenes, Travers’ worthy opponents are Mary Poppins’ screenwriter (Bradley Whitford, Cabin in the Woods) and songwriting brother act (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively of Moonrise Kingdom and TV’s The Office). Her lone ally, it seems, is the driver assigned to her during her two-week stint in America, played by Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave) in the most delightful way.

The Mouse House suits are so gobsmacked by the little old lady’s insolence and insistence that she knows best, they’re unsure how to react. Audiences, however, should have no such problem; Saving Mr. Banks is a well-crafted, nonchallenging crowd-pleaser.

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