Saving Mr. Banks ★★★½

Saving Mr. Banks is a thoroughly well-crafted and emotionally-rich experience, and a far better product than recent Disney live action fare would lead me to expect (Oz, The Lone Ranger, Pirates). And unlike their recent efforts with similarly-large ensemble casts, this film is enriched because of its sprawling talent-pool, creating characters with dimension and life instead of one-note caricatures. Part of that may stem from the fact that this film doesn’t need to rely on fantastical elements or imaginative efforts, and instead places its focus squarely on the one thing Disney films always have, even if all other attributes fail: heart.

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are exceptional in the lead roles, each portraying complex characters with broad-reaching emotions. It’s in the combative nature of these two characters that the tensions of the film primarily lie, but it’s in the metaphorical cues sprinkled throughout the film’s multitude of interactions that breathe poetry into the arc of the film. At its core, this is a film as much about interpretations and creative license as it is about the things we hold so close to us that they hurt. It’s about how difficult it is to let something go as much as it is to let something in.

The film’s secondary narrative, set in the sun-drenched fields of Australia, contains the bulk of beautiful imagery but also much of the dark side of the film. Colin Farrell carries many of these segments, but it’s Annie Rose Buckley (as his daughter, Ginty) who ultimately becomes the heart of this backstory. Unfortunately, the Australian arc doesn’t develop quite the way you’d expect, possibly because it derives its narrative from real events. Unfortunately it means that any opportunity for allusion and poetic foreshadowing is obfuscated by the truth it seeks to project. That’s a bit of a disappointment, but that also perhaps carries with it the obvious benefit of preventing a “Disney-fication” of the story that might render the whole thing too schmaltzy.

Technically, the movie is at Oscar-worthy standards, with music by Thomas Newman and rock-solid direction by John Lee Hancock. Although John Schwartzman's cinematography is far too safe for my tastes, and if you can forgive the over-indulgence in static shots of beautiful curly-haired little girls, the film is shot rather competently - or at least, in a way that never pushes boundaries but never creates any either. Overall, the film is on the heavy-handed side, with pathos being thoroughly infused (or pushed) into nearly every scene of the film - which would be a larger problem if the film wasn’t so expertly crafted. Which is to say it’s not unnoticeable, but it strikes a certain balance that didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the performances (I use that word purposefully) of Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak as the famed Sherman brothers, as well as Paul Giamatti's and Bradley Whitford’s characters, each of whom breathe vitality and honesty to the story, and do much more than simply round out the cast.