Simply put, Walt Disney Pictures' new film "Saving Mr. Banks," is the best new movie I've seen in 2013.
It's about Walt Disney's chilly, uneasy partnership with London authoress P.L. Travers in 1961, while securing the rights to her book character Mary Poppins to make his now iconic 1964 film version starring Julie Andrews.
Like so many others, I had no idea Uncle Walt, played with depth, real emotion and the all-too necessary twinkle in his eye by actor Tom Hanks, had spent 20 years campaigning and wooing the bristling Travers, played perfectly here, with every sigh and eye-roll, along with many moments of complex inner struggles, by wonderful Emma Thompson.
This fascinating story begins with Travers' agent convincing his client to agree to Disney's invitation to visit Los Angeles to seriously consider greenlighting his film project to bring her beloved character to the big screen, assuring the famed nanny with the flying umbrella will live on in the hearts and minds of children for future generations.
Travers' concerns are based in fears Disney will "ruin" her characters and she's especially adamant that no film featuring her Mary Poppins will include singing, dancing or worst of all, animated cartoons. The title character of her book series, is far more brittle, strict and dark than as depicted in Disney's imagination.
Travers agrees to consult for the early workings of the proposed screenplay, with an explicit agreement that she have all final say for any changes. Teamed with the young songwriting team The Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard, along with writer Don DaGradi, each day is a tug-of-war about the direction the film should take. Actors Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak are stellar playing the brotherly duo creative team and they had the added advantage of talking with the real Richard Sherman, who is still alive and well at age 85 and served as a consultant for this motion picture. (His brother Robert died last year at age 86).
Director John Lee Hancock goes to painstaking levels to recreate 1961 decor, fashion and landscapes. Even the portions of Disneyland used for filming scenes were remodeled to mirror the images of the earlier designs of the 1960s. (Travers, who deplores the concept of Disney's amusement park, refers to it in one scene as his "dollar making machine" and explains she has no desire to visit such a place).
Don't expect any "spoonsful of sugar" to spin any of the facts or images of this "based on true events" story as told by Hancock. Hanks as Disney, smokes, drinks and displays a shrewd business mind responsible for running an empire. And Thompson as Travers, gives a heartfelt performance that endears and enlightens, revealing the writer's real-life childhood inspirations for her stories and characters and her devotion to her father, a solid performance by Colin Farrell. (Travers despised that Disney cast Dick Van Dyke, who happens to celebrate his 88th birthday today, as Bert the Chimney Sweep.)
This film is proof of one of Walt Disney's most enduring personal mottos: "If you can dream it, you can do it."
"Saving Mr. Banks," rated PG-13, opens in Chicago today for limited release and expands to wide release Dec. 20.