Sunday, March 30, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment proudly announced the home entertainment release of the heartwarming drama Saving Mr. Banks, which is now available on Blu-ray + Digital Copy, DVD, Digital HD and On-Demand. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson bring to life the untold true story about the origins of one of the most treasured Disney classics of all time. John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) directs this acclaimed film, which reveals the surprising back-story behind the making of Mary Poppins. Determined to fulfill a promise to his daughters, Walt Disney (Hanks) tries for twenty years to obtain the rights to author P.L. Travers’ (Thompson) beloved book. Armed with his iconic creative vision, Walt pulls out all the stops, but the uncompromising Travers won’t budge. Only when he reaches into his own complicated childhood does Walt discover the truth about the ghosts that haunt Travers, and together, they set Mary Poppins free.
Film (4 out of 5 stars)
Saving Mr. Banks tells two stories, one through flashbacks which shows how Pamela "P.L." Travers (Emma Thompson) became the person she ended up being during the in the the second story-line which is set much later. The film starts out in London in 1961, when Pamela is facing the very hard decision on whether or not to to give Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) the rights to her character of Mary Poppins which he has been trying to obtain for twenty years. Her literary agent begs her to meet with Walt because she needs to the money and because her book sales had plummeted. Torn between her disapproval of animated movies and her financial straits, she finally agrees to go to Los Angeles. it will be a meeting between two opposites, with Pamela's perpetually cranky attitude contrasting with Walt's sunny disposition and it's no surprise that neither one knows how to respond to the other initially.

During a flashback to Pamela's period of growing up in a remote town in Australia begins to give us an understanding of why she ended up the way she did much later in life. Her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) is a charismatic dreamer whose work obligations to support his family begin to become too much for him and his reliance on alcohol to cope sets him a path to ruin. Pamela is very similar to her father and they share a bond that excludes the rest of their family including her mother and his wife, who slowly unravels mentally from the stress that she can't handle. 

Back in the current timeline, Pamela arrives in Los Angeles and is met by her limo driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), whose friendliness and good cheer annoys her. Her disdain isn't just for him however, as she doesn't think to highly of the beautiful city of Los Angeles or its inhabitants. That attitude also includes all of the employees of Walt Disney, as they soon discover when the screenwriter of Mary Poppins Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the film's songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) meet Pamela for the first time. Right away, she starts dictating story points and informing them that they don't understand the character of Mary Poppins at all as she believes that Mary Poppins (never just Mary) is the enemy of sentiment and whimsy. That contrasts with the image of the character that they and Walt have of the character, which puts the team and Walt in a hard place.

When Walt meets with Pamela, he is all charm and the personification of positivity, which both entrances and annoys Pamela. In many ways, Walt is very similar to her late father, a fact that keeps Pamela very unnerved by. Pamela begins testing Walt to see how much he will bend to her will to make the movie, such as banning the color red from the film, and by making him promise that it wouldn't be animated. Walt does his best to agree to her terms but his lack of understanding her begins to frustrate him. This is a new experience for him, as his charm has usually been all he needed in the past as he is a natural salesman. For Pamela, the entire trip to Los Angeles and meeting Walt especially, has brought up unwelcome memories from the past and her father. 

The more that Pamela protests about the movie and especially the portrayal of the father in the movie, the Disney team begins to realize that these characters are more than just ones that were created for the novel. These characters were actual figures in her past and their actions have left her so unhappy that she's done her best to keep those emotions locked up ever since. Now faced with them again while the story is worked out, it's all Pamela can do to keep it together. It's just too painful for her to relive those memories and her first instinct is to run away and lock it all away again. It's up to Walt Disney to help her move on from her painful past and to find a way to forgive and forget it and start the process of healing.  

Saving Mr. Banks is a fantastic movie that covers an interesting period of time that involved one of my favorite movies, so I was the perfect audience for this. Even though this movie is based on real events, it has been modified for dramatic purposes and I'm sure that some liberties were taken. It does feel like an overall truth was captured however, which is proved at the end of the film when we actually hear some of the recordings from the story conferences between Pamela and Disney that she insisted on. The characterizations of both Pamela and Walt also feel extremely accurate. If there was ever an actor suited to play Walt Disney, I can't think of one better qualified than the personable everyman Tom Hanks. Not only does he perfectly capture Walt's genial personality, but his real love for all things Disney shines through. It's a tough role because everyone knows who Walt Disney was, either through his many television appearances or in interviews. 

P.L. Travers on the hand isn't as well known, not that that stopped Emma Thompson from nailing the attitude and vulnerability of the woman. When you hear Traver's actual voice in the recording, you can see just how closely Thompson evoked her spirit. Her interaction with the Disney team provides a lot of laughs as her sharp tongue and forceful opinions leave them dumbfounded. This supporting cast is just as good as the main players and once again Paul Giamatti does wonders with a relatively small role. His character of Ralph plays an important role in breaking down Pamela's emotional barriers and Giamatti's warm and cheerful performance is excellent. Director John Lee Hancock has done a great job balancing real history with some creative liberties which helps us better understand Travers and her personality. When Travers finally sees the final film, it's cathartic for both her and the audience as we've witnessed her sad journey that led her to there and it's a powerful moment and one that the film earns.
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
This 1080p (2.40:1) transfer is a striking presentation that's free of any kind of scratches or any other digital defects. The detail present is very sharp and every texture looks real and exact. Colors are also well delivered and the visual contrast between London and sunny California is also fantastic. Flesh tones look realistic and natural and the film's black levels are solid and as dark as they should be. All in all, this transfer is very nice and one that fans will enjoy.
Audio (4 out of 5 stars)
Saving Mr. Banks' DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also very good but it doesn't quite reach the same level of quality as the visual presentation, but it does come close. The dialogue is clear and well prioritized while the rear channels offer some nice ambience that makes the viewer feel like they are there with the action on the screen. The best part for me, was when Walt takes Pamela to Disneyland and we get to hear the sounds of the park jump from one channel to the other, to create an immersive experience that brings the park to life. Although this isn't one of those mixes that will shake your walls, it does the job nicely and makes it all feel true to life.
Extras (3 out of 5 stars)
I was really really hoping that Disney would offer a lot of extras on this disc since there's so much that they could have done. From including the actual recordings between Travers and the Disney team to the historical documents that the Walt Disney Archives about the making of Mary Poppins that they surely must have, this seems like a missed opportunity. Another huge loss is the death of Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller whose recent introductions to Walt's films added a human element to them. It's a shame that she didn't live long enough to provide an introduction for a movie so focused on her father, but it was a nice touch that this film was dedicated to her. 
  • The Walt Disney Studios: From Poppins to Present - Director John Lee Hancock takes us on a tour of the Disney Studios lot where he reflects on studio life during the making of Mary Poppins, and shows us how Walt’s creative spirit still flourishes today. This fifteen minute featurette does a nice job giving an overview of the journey from Walt's time to this movie with comments from past Disney employees and their children. I really enjoyed this but wished it was a lot longer.
  • Let’s Go Fly a Kite - Cast and crew break out in an impromptu performance of "Let's Go Fly a Kite" while composer Richard Sherman plays the piano. It's great to see how much the cast and crew were invested in this movie and their obvious warmth comes through quite a bit and it's touching to see how that love affects Richard Sherman.
  • Deleted Scenes - We get two deleted scenes that I think should have been left in the finished film. They are:
    • Stargaze - A picture on Walt’s desk leads to a flashback of Pamela’s childhood. 
    • Nanny Song - The Sherman Brothers perform a song for Pamela that she is less than thrilled with.
    • Pam Leaves - We get to see a more human side of Pamela when she talks with Ralph before leaving for England.
Summary (4 out of 5 stars)

Saving Mr. Banks is a great film and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. Every performance in this film is fantastic and I really liked seeing the behind the scenes making of Mary Poppins even if not all of it really happened exactly like this. I think there's enough truth here to make it feel honest and real. The Blu-ray offers an incredible video presentation and the audio mix is also very good. The extras should have been more extensive but I enjoyed what was included. This Blu-ray is highly recommended!

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