SavingMrBankscoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Possibly
2013, 125 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, including some unsettling images
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DigitalHD Copy
Bonus features: C-

Ever since Old Yeller, parents have had to decide where to draw the line with live-action Disney movies—and that line gets a little blurry with Saving Mr. Banks, the 2013 behind-the-scenes story of what it took for Disney to fulfill a 20-year promise he made to his daughter.

On the one hand, Saving Mr. Banks is a bittersweet tale of how the Disney bunch finally managed to wear down the dour and stodgy P.L. Travers and convince her to assign them the film rights to her Mary Poppins books.

Mark Twain famously said, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please,” and that’s exactly what screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith have done. But if you like Disney’s live-action/animated musical Mary Poppins, odds are you’ll enjoy seeing the curtain parted to show Disney and his writing and songwriting team wooing Travers. There’s plenty of humor and warmth in these sections, which are set in 1964 mostly in and around the Disney studio—a setting that’s almost as magical and fun to see as the movies and theme parks. But the story behind the story is . . . well, another story. 

Travers, whose real name was Helen Goff, had an idyllic but also hard life as a young girl, and constant cutaways to her memories of growing up in Australia circa 1906 aren’t just flashbacks—they’re sad reflections that haunt her and, to some degree, make her the dour and stodgy person she’s become. Even happy memories that “Ginty” (Young Travers, played by Annie Rose Buckley) has of her father come with an undercurrent of sadness.

Although Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) was the kind of playful father every child would want, he also lost several jobs because of alcoholism, and that put a real strain on the family. Drinking and the effects of drinking are shown, as is a serious illness and a very subtle attempted suicide that younger children might not even recognize. But there’s no language, and no sexual situations. It’s just flawed humanity and death that are the cautions for young viewers. Whether a child can watch will really depend on the individual. Our daughter is 12, and she liked the film and didn’t find it disturbing at all—sad in many places, but not disturbing.

The film draws its title from the notion that Travers’ books weren’t about Mary Poppins coming to save the children . . . she was really coming to save Mr. Banks, who, of course, was based on Travers’ own father.

SavingMrBanksscreenEmma Thompson shines as the proper and prickly Travers, turning in a performance that really was worthy of an Oscar nomination. It’s easy to believe Thompson as Travers, and she has some lengthy reaction shots that are nothing short of amazing. It takes longer to adjust to Hanks as Disney, partly because he’s made up to look younger than the Disney who died just two years after finally bringing Mary Poppins to the screen, and partly because his voice sounds more Southern than Midwestern—as anyone who grew up watching Disney introduce segments on Walt Disney Presents or Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color will notice.

But those are small things compared to the satisfying story arc, the sixties’ atmosphere, and the skillful blend of comedy and drama that make Saving Mr. Banks such a rewarding film. Despite the sad backstory, the Disney-Travers polite battle of wills so dominates that those painful segments seem minimized, especially since the Sherman brothers’ songs are liberally recreated here and bring this film to life, just as they did the live-action/animated classic  50 years ago.

In reality, Travers hated the movie, hated the music, and especially hated Dick Van Dyke. But that would have made for a very short and uninteresting movie, wouldn’t it? With a few distorted facts, Saving Mr. Banks takes on a life of its own, and there’s enough truth in it to make you swallow the rest . . . with or without a spoonful of sugar.