Nov. 08--Hard to think of a better opening night film for the 2013 AFI Fest than "Saving Mr. Banks." The thing even climaxes inside the Chinese Theatre -- where it played Thursday -- with a recreation of the 1964 premiere of "Mary Poppins." Perhaps more to the spirit of L.A.'s best-curated film festival, "Banks" is a love letter to the joy and head-butting of cinematic creativity.
On one side of the aesthetic ram fight here is English (or is she really?) author P.L. Travers, played with all the imperiousness and fidgety technique that Emma Thompson can muster. On the other side is Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, sounding a hint more Southern than I recall the mogul did in those "Wonderful World of Color" intros) and his creative team, mainly screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the musical Sherman brothers, wonderfully played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak.
After 20 years of frustrated attempts to buy the rights to her flying nanny novel, Disney finally lures Travers from London to his Burbank lot in the early 1960s, where he and the gang try mightily to convince her their proposed movie will honor her artistic integrity.
She hates all of their vulgar ideas, of course, but then the woman seems to hate everything. Flashbacks to a childhood with a beloved but alcoholic dad (Colin Farrell) may explain some of her bitter, brittle attitude, but these scenes' function in the movie is more about pulling heartstrings.
Sentimentality ultimately triumphs in both the battle over the movie "Mary Poppins" and in this movie about it. But credit director John Lee Hancock, operating on a much more complex plane than he did with "The Blind Side," and writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith for taking well-aimed potshots at everything that's dopey about Disney in a film that mostly unfolds on Mouse-owned property.
"Saving Mr. Banks" is sure to please and prime viewers for next year's 50th anniversary repackagings of "Mary Poppins" -- and is no doubt giving Walt a winner's smile somewhere in cryogenic heaven.
Check back for updates from AFI Fest and more reviews by Los Angeles News Group reporter Bob Strauss.
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