What a surprise! When I went into this film I was literally expecting a sentimental-fest trying to force me to have an emotional reaction similar to the Butler and the Blind Side, but instead I got a film that was not only exceptionally well made, but possibly one of my favorites of the year. It was poignant, funny, and incredibly well acted, while telling a truly interesting (and true) background story that is nearly as good as the film that it is the background of.
This film has a back and forth flashback and present time of P.L. Traver's childhood story (and background behind Marry Poppins) which tends to lend to the more emotional (and sentimental) parts of the film, while other half that goes on in the 60s is the more comical sections between Travers and the Mary Poppins production crew and the dispute over the rights and what should be in the film. I found that this back and forth banter of flashbacks and flash fowards worked really well, flowed, and kept a nice, pristine balance in the more comical (yet still meat heavy) rights disputes and the more dramatic childhood. This balance helps to stop the film from ever becoming too sentimental, while also adding lots of meat and character depth that might have otherwise made Traver's character unlikable and unrelatable (it's funny how the more you learn of the background the more you start to take her side of the argument and not Disney's).
P.L. Travers is played by Emma Thompson, and boy does she do a good job at it. The majority of the laughs come from her, and would not have been achievable through the script alone, it was Thompson who really drove it home by making her completely believable (and she sounds just like the Travers you hear at the very end during the credits). She adds so much emotional weight to the movie as well, and manages to make a title character who could have been very easily despicable into a relatable woman who is scared of having her creation taken away and abused. There is also so much realistic character growth, while never actually compromising the reality of the situation or becoming to sentimentally predictable, all of this is really thanks to how well Thompson portrayed Travers in her performance.
Just because Thompson stole the show (I shouldn't even say stole because it was hers to begin with) it doesn't mean the ensemble wasn't top-notch. The character contrasts, while there were a couple who at times seemed a bit one dimensional, were especially good and they really created a humorous yet almost moving situation. Despite Tom Hanks being one of the supporting standouts in the film as Walt, Paul Giamatti might just have been my favorite supports. While Walt's depth could seem a bit shoehorned, and the ending conflict that was bound to happen never fully played out, Giamatti's character had a full arc, and had the most depth under the (mostly) smiling face.
Even though the acting was one of the main highlights for the film does not mean it was the only good thing about it. Hancock's direction was very much adequate, and the script could get sensationally funny by playing on such little things, the fact that this is a drama and it had more genuine laughs than a lot of comedies says something about the quality of the script. More on the technical side, Thomas Newman's score was very well done, and what impressed me was how it managed to play off the old Mary Poppins score while still creating something completely new, refreshing, and something that immerses you into the film quite subtly, a standout of a soundtrack definitely.
Saving Mr. Banks is definitely one of the surprises of the year for me, and is very much worthy of all the praise that it has been getting lately. The movie is endearingly funny and at times touches on some brutally honest themes in the past of P.L. Travers. It's a fantastic standout of the year of 2013, and a phenomenal choice to end the year on.
8.75/10 Sticks of Bamboo