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A Roomful of Sugar

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

François Duhamel/Walt Disney Studios

No one's hidden pain may be left undocumented these days, and most creative works end up being skinned so that the inner workings of their makers' tormented minds can be laid out on the operating table for inspection. This urge may throw some new light on the activities of characters in a story like "Mary Poppins," where the internalized pain and regrets of a young Australian girl can be seamlessly projected forward onto the book she wrote in later life, lending resonance to every poignant plot point. But it's a strange modern way to interact with art, which has historically been expected to present a mirror to your own personality, rather than provide a hotline to the one buzzing in the head of P. L. Travers. Plus a lot of immortal literature for young people was written by mature individuals with issues, and what does it matter? Look at Enid Blyton; the definitive film about her would have to be made by Wes Craven.

"Saving Mr. Banks" sails serenely over all these issues, on a cushion of sheer craft. The most manipulative films (and this one roars straight onto the list at a high position) can still be forgiven as long as they don't confuse manipulation with condescension; and whatever else is true of John Lee Hancock's film, it does not condescend. Structured around interleaved flashbacks and in no hurry to signpost some of the symbolic trapdoors left behind, it allows Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks to craft shaded portrayals of Travers and Walt Disney which might be saccharine, but aren't naive. The fabled un-meeting of minds over the nature of Mary Poppins is many things — literature vs. cinema; Old World vs. New; spinster vs. showman — and Mr. Hancock cannily sets up echoing conflicts elsewhere. Players with an old-fashioned character actor's air, like Paul Giamatti and Bradley Whitford, dominate the 1960s scenes, while rawer and more modern performers Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson occupy 1907 Queensland with all its heartbreak and loss.

The soundtrack is occupied by Thomas Newman, probably the film's trump card. Mr. Newman's natural style heads any sarcasm off at the pass, a heartfelt emotional language that still feels richly American; the change of composer over Mr. Hancock's usual collaborator Carter Burwell is the best sign available of the director's intentions. Cynics will bridle at countless bits of unlikely honeyed business, but the film outmaneuvers all opponents by playing audio of the real Travers and her cantankerous argumentation over the end credits, and immediately turns out to have been startlingly true to life. The sum total gets perilously close to that long-lost genre the adult weepie, but its heart lies in the right place — adjacent to The Walt Disney Company's bank account, fortuitously enough.


Opens on Nov. 29 in Britain and on Dec. 13 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by John Lee Hancock; written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Mark Livolsi; music by Thomas Newman; production design by Michael Corenblith; costumes by Daniel Orlandi; produced by Alison Owen, Ian Collie and Philip Steuer; released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Running time: 2 hours. This film is rated PG by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Emma Thompson (P. L. Travers), Tom Hanks (Walt Disney), Paul Giamatti (Ralph), Jason Schwartzman (Richard Sherman), Bradley Whitford (Don DaGradi), Annie Rose Buckley (Ginty), Ruth Wilson (Margaret Goff), B. J. Novak (Robert Sherman), Rachel Griffiths (Aunt Ellie), Kathy Baker (Tommie), Colin Farrell (Travers Goff) and Melanie Paxson (Dolly).


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