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Saving Mr. Banks: Blu-ray + Digital HD Digital Copy Review

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) movie poster Saving Mr. Banks

Theatrical Release: December 13, 2013 / Running Time: 126 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: John Lee Hancock / Writers: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith

Cast: Emma Thompson (P.L. Travers), Tom Hanks (Walt Disney), Annie Rose Buckley (Ginty), Colin Farrell (Travers Goff), Ruth Wilson (Margaret Goff), Paul Giamatti (Ralph), Bradley Whitford (Don DaGradi), B.J. Novak (Robert Sherman), Jason Schwartzman (Richard Sherman), Lily Bigham (Biddy), Kathy Baker (Tommie), Melanie Paxson (Dolly), Andy McPhee (Mr. Belhatchett), Rachel Griffiths (Aunt Ellie)
Saving Mr. Banks is one of DVDizzy.com's Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).Saving Mr. Banks ranks 67th in our list of the Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).

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Walt Disney Pictures has made many different kinds of movies over the past eighty years. Their animated and live-action features have included musicals, fantasies, adventures, science fiction, mystery, and even horror. What Disney has never made is a prestige film timed and designed to win awards.
Fittingly, Disney's first piece of awards bait, Saving Mr. Banks, documents the creation of the studio's most decorated film, Mary Poppins.

Although Walt Disney the man holds the untouchable record of most Academy Awards won by an individual, even his films most revered today did not compete for major honors in their day. Walt's accolades came from short subject and documentary categories. His animated features were often recognized for their music but little else. Poppins was his only Best Picture Oscar nominee.

The namesake studio he left behind has similarly been marginalized by award shows, settling for song and score wins and some Comedy or Musical Golden Globes back when animated films were still eligible for them. The recent expansion of the Best Picture field, first to ten nominees and then to between five and ten (but seemingly always nine), has allowed Pixar's Up and Toy Story 3 to join Beauty and the Beast as the only animated films to compete for the top prize. Even the company's grown-up divisions, like Touchstone Pictures, rarely vied for that honor, until the field was widened and Touchstone began distributing live-action DreamWorks productions such as the Steven Spielberg dramas War Horse and Lincoln.

Saving Mr. Banks bucked the trend, as an in-house Disney-branded production that seemed certain to contend for major Academy Awards. But as perfect as the symmetry would have been -- the film about making Mary Poppins getting awards love on the eve of that masterpiece's 50th anniversary -- it was not to be.

Saving seemed likely to snag a Best Picture nomination even in a pool as shallow as five. All the experts were predicting it and with the Oscars' recent love for movies about movies/filmmakers (e.g. The Artist, Hugo, Argo), they'd be insane not to. Star Emma Thompson looked like a lock for a Best Actress nod. The only question was as to whom would miss out because of her: Amy Adams, Judi Dench, or Meryl Streep?

In retrospect, the first sign of trouble may have come the day before Saving opened. The Golden Globes' Best Drama category passed over the film for what seemed like two unlikely contenders, Philomena and Rush. In the 2010s thus far, only one film nominated in that Globes category had missed out -- The Ides of March -- on the subsequent Oscar Best Picture nomination (and it still picked up a Best Adapted Screenplay nod). On the other hand, some films missing the Globe nomination (e.g. The Tree of Life, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) had still went on to compete for the Oscars' top prize. But Saving Mr. Banks would not join them when the Academy gave the film just a single nomination, for Best Original Score. Turns out Philomena had snuck into the Oscars' Best Picture pool and all three of those actresses slipped in ahead of Thompson.

"Saving Mr. Banks" stars Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the author who is reluctant to part with the film rights to her Mary Poppins books.

Timing and content made Saving Mr. Banks look like Oscar bait, which in turn invited some skepticism. How could we expect Disney, a company that has canonized its oft-celebrated namesake, to do justice to a story about behind-the-scenes contention and acrimony?
Walt Disney Collectibles and Gifts, Disney Figurines
It is with relief and surprise that I can report this film pulls off that difficult feat quite admirably and far more gracefully than you would expect from the director of The Blind Side, The Rookie (2002), and The Alamo (2004).

Today, Disney regards Mary Poppins as the crowning achievement of Walt's career, a film released two years prior to his death that merged the elements of his entire oeuvre in film, television, and theme parks into one joyous crowd-pleasing extravaganza. There's magic, music, family shenanigans, some animation, and a little history, and it all comes together so smoothly and perfectly. A previous attempt with about as much ambition, 1961's Babes in Toyland, had faltered for what today are obvious reasons. It's too sweet, light, and cheap, relying on candy colors, television actors, and a very obvious sound stage. Poppins would improve on that film in every way, deftly balancing merry mirth with familial dysfunction to create something substantial, moving, and absolutely satisfying.

Saving illustrates that the path to those results was anything but direct or easy. P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the London-based author of the Mary Poppins books, refused to give Walt (Tom Hanks) the film rights to the stories. For twenty years, Walt inquired and was rebuffed on an annual basis. By the early 1960s, though, Travers ever so slightly warmed to the prospect of a film adaptation, mostly out of financial desperation. Travers is flown to Los Angeles and put up in a hotel that's filled with stuffed dolls of Disney's best-known characters. She is disgusted by that maneuver and by most things American, including her friendly, small talk-making assigned driver (Paul Giamatti).

Disney's trusted talent, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting siblings Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), have prepared a pitch for Travers, who is immune to their charm and dismissive of their creativity. The author seems immovably opposed to having her stories become a musical or a cartoon. Even in the presence of the avuncular Walt, Travers is uncomfortable, demanding, and reluctant to dispense with formality. Saving proceeds to document this challenging production, which unfolds with Travers withholding her signature while dispensing some creative license one small step at a time. The never-impressed, hard to please novelist throws her weight around, forcing Walt to agree to refrain from using the color red, for instance. When talk of animated penguins arises, Travers storms back home to England, casting doubt over this major project.

Tom Hanks sports slick hair and a mustache to play Walt Disney, one of the few people to win more Oscars than him.

Even with a PG-13 rating unusual for Disney (and mostly unwarranted for the content), the screenplay from "Terra Nova" creator, Fifty Shades of Grey adapter Kelly Marcel of the UK and Australian television veteran Sue Smith seems to sanitize some of the artistic differences encountered on the Mary Poppins development and shoot. Walt is basically portrayed as a white knight, displaying the patience and restraint of a saint, and the virtue,
per 2013 Disney's film smoking policies, to keep his tobacco habit out of sight. Travers, meanwhile, is a mess: protective, paranoid, and stiffly out of turn.

The screenplay gives both Travers and Walt motivation for wanting to endure this uneasy collaboration without conceding too much. Despite his evident business acumen, Walt wants to make good on his promise to his daughters to adapt the books they love. Travers, meanwhile, wants to honor her father (Colin Farrell in numerous flashbacks), a playful, alcoholic banker who raised her with love in Australia. The dual narrative that searches for parallels in Travers' upbringing, her fantastical fiction, and her resistance to filmmaker ideas is the weakest aspect of the film. The early 20th century parts inform us some of Travers' unbudging standards, but it's laborious to keep returning to them. They're also derivative of films like Finding Neverland and Shakespeare in Love in presenting some of the experiences that inspired the author. Such a design can be cute or clever in moderation, but here the conceit is stretched thin and robs Travers of any imagination. The flaws of that touch are most evident when young Travers, then called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), has a no-nonsense aunt (Rachel Griffiths) with a big carpet bag full of items visit and get the kids to clean up "Spit-spot." Get it? It's just like Mary Poppins!

Most of the time, Saving Mr. Banks is smarter and more sophisticated than that. It does commit an anachronism to fit in a joke involving a stuffed Winnie the Pooh doll, one of several goofs that mar the otherwise impressive production design. It also makes the odd decision to redo a giant Mary Poppins poster with the likeness of Dick Van Dyke impersonator Kristopher Kyer, who gets about 3 seconds of screentime at the film's Grauman's Chinese Theater premiere. Personally, my biggest disappointment is that the amusing, eminently retellable story of Travers and Walt's brief exchange following the film's premiere -- the anecdote that sprung to mind upon the first news of this project -- does not make it into the picture, with Hancock opting to end the story in a less accurate, more feel-good fashion.

Belabored flashbacks running throughout the film show us the trying experiences of Travers' parents (Ruth Wilson and Colin Farrell) in the Australian outback.

After the sentimental tripe that was The Blind Side, I expected more of Saving to take a feel-good, saccharine route. I'm pleased it does not and, overall, quite pleased with the film. Though she's much younger and more attractive than the real Travers (early 50s in 2013 looks at least twenty-five years younger than early 60s in the 1960s), Thompson unsurprisingly commands the screen. Her Oscar omission was perhaps the biggest surprise of nominations morning, but it's tough to find fault with any of the five performances chosen ahead of her.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney seems like inspired casting based on the comparable all-American appeal of the Hollywood power players a half-century apart. Unfortunately, Walt is a public figure we're quite familiar with and Hanks doesn't commit to disappearing in the role. Our first glimpse of Hanks as Walt on a (daytime) television broadcast Travers quickly switches off, is the most flawed. Instead of trying, as he should, to embody the showman on-air Walt we know, Hanks is just being his own likable self. The performance improves some as we move on, but it is the role, not the actor supplying weight. While it's fair to say we don't know exactly how the man was behind closed doors, Hanks feels a little folksy and too reverential, even as he hands out pre-signed autographs to Disneyland guests on an improbably undisturbed (and plainly invented) park visit with Travers.

Supporting cast members mostly fare well in their roles, Giamatti nicely acquiting his Driving Miss Daisy-ish storyline, and the trio of Schwartzman, Novak, and Whitford entertaining as studio pros rightfully flabbergasted by Travers' impropriety.

Paul Giamatti makes an impression as chauffeur Ralph, the first American to win Travers over. The boys -- songwriters Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) -- are surprised to hear Travers dismiss musical notions.

Saving Mr. Banks feels like two movies in one, one of them much better than the other. Though it feels kind of televisiony, it's the 1960s storyline that's much preferred to the corny, cinematic Australian scenes.
I'm convinced you could cut the Australian material with little detriment to the film. It'd probably trim to a brisk 80 minutes or so and feel kind of slight, but it'd be less self-important and derivative and more satisfying. I'd actually be interested in seeing that version of the film, even if it would deprive us much of Thomas Newman's characteristically compelling score.

My reactions to a first viewing of the film mostly held true. "It seems very likely that Saving will do well with critics, not quite The Artist well but much better than Hitchcock." The proof is in the Rotten Tomatoes scores. "I'm fairly sure that the film will also pick up some major award nominations, though it probably won't win any." You can dispute the "some major" part, but Thompson was widely recognized and she did win National Board of Review's Best Actress.

As for the film's commercial prospects, I wrote, "What is less certain is how the movie performs at the box office, lacking the big effects of The Hobbit and Walter Mitty, the anticipated R-rated flair of American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, and the big audience reactions of Anchorman 2." Those concerns proved somewhat warranted, with Saving Mr. Banks trailing all of those except Walter Mitty, which flopped. Saving started slow, but soon picked up. My expectation that it would play "well into winter on word of mouth and critical acclaim" was undoubtedly hindered by its lack of Oscar recognition. That and the resulting theater count boost would have probably lifted the film to $100 million domestically. Instead, the film must settle for a little over $100 M worldwide, the bulk of which came from a plenty respectable $83.2 M in North America. In other words, "Though it definitely will not recreate the blockbuster numbers of Hancock's previous effort, it should have a much greater impact than comparable filmmaking biopics like Hitchcock and My Week with Marilyn."

Academy Award recognition may have delayed the film's home video release closer to Easter. Instead, Disney sent Saving to stores the same day as its double Oscar winner Frozen. Unlike that smash hit and every new Disney-branded film since 2009, Saving has not been made available in a Blu-ray + DVD edition. The company has been rethinking its combo pack policy, which it pioneered and has come to be adopted by every other major studio out there. As a film that deserves a large audience, this seems like a strange title to shake up the formula on. But Disney seems to be treating this just like the other PG-13 movies it's released to disc this season, like Marvel's recent Thor: The Dark World and this coming Tuesday's Delivery Man from DreamWorks. As such, you can choose to own Saving Mr. Banks on DVD and in the Blu-ray + Digital HD Digital Copy edition reviewed here. If you want all three, though, you'll need to make multiple purchases.

Saving Mr. Banks Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish),
Dolby Surround 2.0 (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $26.50 (Reduced from $36.99)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($29.99 $19.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Blu-ray Disc's picture and sound quality leave absolutely nothing to be desired. The sharp 2.40:1 transfer shows off the pleasant visuals, which are more vivid than those of most contemporaries. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio isn't as remarkable, but it more than gets the job done, finely distributing Thomas Newman's score and the handful of diegetic songs performed by Jason Schwartzman and others.

Walt (Tom Hanks) tries to stop Pamela (Emma Thompson) from returning home in this deleted scene. Director John Lee Hancock takes in the sights of "The Walt Disney Studios: From Poppins to the Present."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's modest supply of extras starts with three deleted scenes (7:24). There's a scene of the parents in Australia,
the Sherman brothers playing "The Nanny Song" for Travers, and a Walt-Travers bench chat before Travers' departure. Without introductions or commentary, we're left to guess why these were cut. I'd guess there's a lot more deleted footage we don't get here, too.

Director John Lee Hancock hosts "The Walt Disney Studios: From Poppins to the Present" (14:35). He talks about using production design to get the studio right, children of Disney employees recall their experiences at the studio, and Richard Sherman revisits the room where he and his brother met with Travers and the hallway where they last saw Walt. It's a tad all over the place and not designed to be a main featurette as it's asked to be here, but it's a strong inclusion and easily the disc's best bonus.

Watch a deleted scene from Saving Mr. Banks:

The real Richard Sherman celebrates the final day of filming with a rendition of "Let's Go Fly a Kite." The end credits' shot of a tape recorder functions as the Blu-ray's creative, unconventional menu screen.

Finally, "Let's Go Fly a Kite" (1:47) finds the real Richard Sherman
leading the crew in a sing-along on the last day of filming back in November 2012.

The disc opens with trailers for Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition, Maleficent, and a Eugene Levy anti-smoking spot. The Sneak Peeks menu precedes these with promos for Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Parks, Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition,

The creative, atypical menu uses the end credits image of a table with a tape recorder playing a loop of the film's recreated creative meetings.

The side-snapped blue keepcase is topped by a slick textured slipcover, while the plain blue disc is joined by a booklet holding your unique Disney Movie Rewards/digital copy magic code.

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) takes P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) around Disneyland in a fun, invented scene.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Whether I was previously affected by the measured expectations with which I entered or am now being influenced by its lack of Academy Awards recognition, I found Saving Mr. Banks a little less supercalifragilisticexpialidocious on my second home viewing. Still, in spite of some concerns (that recurring Australia narrative, departure from fact), I really like this movie and wish it got more acknowledgement than it did.

Disney's move away from standalone live-action films has disappointed. This is easily the second best effort of those (behind The Muppets) in a long time. It also made more money more quickly than most of their pricey aspiring tentpoles (like John Carter and The Lone Ranger). While I doubt we'll see more films of this kind (excluding the true sports dramas), perhaps we should.

The Blu-ray is sort of a disappointment. This is a film that lends to many relevant bonus features, which makes the paltry lot assembled here a letdown. I have no doubt that there are many more deleted scenes and that production was documented as all major ones are nowadays. I also can easily think of Mary Poppins-related material that could have been included, like premiere footage and Walt's anthology series promotion. The prospect of the studio revisiting this film on Blu-ray is slim at best. While the film and its feature presentation are still good enough to recommend, I expected quite a bit more from this release (not to mention a DVD).

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Reviewed March 24, 2014.



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