'Hobbit 2,' 'Mr. Banks' Are Not Your Parents' Family Films

Bob Mondello takes a look at two holiday crowd-pleasers: the latest iteration of a fantasy involving hobbits: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and the true-life story of the creation of a 1960s fantasy involving a flying nanny, Saving Mr. Banks.

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Two movies opening this weekend offer proof that family films aren't what they used to be. "Saving Mr. Banks" offers a fresh look at the Disney classic "Mary Poppins." And the new "Hobbit" movie, "The Desolation of Smaug," is a state-of-the-art fantasy film.

Here's critic Bob Mondello, leaping from flying nannies to flying dragons.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Dwarves, elves, enchanted kingdoms, buried treasure; if everyone whistled while they worked, this would be Disney kid flick territory, no? But, no, this is Middle Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG")

ALLAN SMITH: (as Orc) Death is upon you. The flames of war are upon you.

MONDELLO: Yeah, not so much, actually. But with director Peter Jackson's gift for what I'm starting to think of as theme-park filmmaking, adventure still lurks around every thousand-foot cliff - and there doesn't seem to be any other kind in Middle Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND EFFECTS FROM MOVIE, "THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG")

MONDELLO: For "The Desolation of Smaug," Jackson's devised an orc-dodging water ride, a giant spiderweb forest ride, a chutes and ladders castle ride, and an impressive main attraction - the dwarf treasure hunt ride, on which Bilbo Baggins finally meets the fire-breathing dragon of the title.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG")

MARTIN FREEMAN: (as Bilbo Baggins) The tales and songs fall utterly short of your enormity. Oh Smaug, the stupendous.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (as Smaug) Come now, don't be shy. Step into the light.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROWL)

MONDELLO: Benedict Cumberbatch is a supremely full-of-himself dragon. And Martin Freeman, a resourceful, if shambling Bilbo. If you've seen them on TV's "Sherlock," you'll recognize they have roughly the same relationship as Holmes and Watson. "The Desolation of Smaug" has to raid "The Hobbit" novel's appendix to fill two hours and 40 minutes with these middle chapters, but the effects are as grand as ever. And the pace has picked up enough that fans won't feel desolate at all - even when Smaug is acting a lot like a trailer for the next Hobbit movie.

Speaking of which, there was a real danger that Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks" would end up feeling supercali-trailer-istic. It is, after all, the backstory of a Disney classic, and it's arriving just before the 50th anniversary of that classic. Happily, "Saving Mr. Banks" has some spark of his own - chiefly because there's friction from the moment the smiling Disney team meets Emma Thompson's amusingly abrasive children's author, P.L. Travers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING MR. BANKS")

BRADLEY WHITFORD: (as Don DaGradi) ...the creator of our beloved Mary.

EMMA THOMPSON: (as P.L. Travers) Poppins.

WHITFORD: (as Don DaGradi) Who else?

THOMPSON: (as P.L. Travers) Mary Poppins. Never ever just Mary. A pleasure to meet you. Fear we shan't be acquainted for very long.

WHITFORD: (as Don DaGradi) Why is that?

THOMPSON: (as P.L. Travers) Because these books simply do not lend themselves to chirping and prancing. No. Certainly not a musical. Now where is Mr. Disney? I'd so much like to get this started and finished as briskly as is humanly possible. Perhaps someone can point me in his direction.

MONDELLO: She is what my mother used to call a pill. But she's up against Uncle Walt, played by Tom Hanks as a man who's not used to hearing no, and not averse to using a whole lot more than one spoonful of sugar to get what he wants.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING MR. BANKS")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TOM HANKS: (as Walt Disney) Oh, my dear gal, you can't imagine how excited I am to finally meet you.

MONDELLO: All the charm in the world, though, only gets Travers into the room with the creative team; it does not make her a team player.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING MR. BANKS")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as characters) Multiples responstible(ph). Now, how does that sound?

THOMPSON: (as P.L. Travers) No, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. Responstible is not a word.

B.J. NOVAK: (as Robert Sherman) We made it up.

THOMPSON: (as P.L. Travers) Well, unmake it up.

MONDELLO: Flashbacks to Travers's childhood in Australia - where her adoring but alcoholic father couldn't keep his job as a bank manager - explain why she would not want changes made to the Banks household that Mary Poppins whips into shape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING MR. BANKS")

THOMPSON: (as P.L. Travers) I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.

HANKS: (as Walt Disney) Says the woman who sent a flying nanny with an umbrella to save the children.

THOMPSON: (as P. L. Travers) You think Mary Poppins has come to save the children? Oh, dear.

MONDELLO: "Saving Mr. Banks" is pretty on the nose with its psychological observations, and director John Lee Hancock lets it gets awfully sweet by the end. You'll have to look elsewhere to discover that Travers remains so un-fond of the movie that in her 90s she granted stage rights to the character only on the condition that no one associated with the film could be involved. She reportedly even put a clause in her will banning Disney from making a sequel. But "Saving Mr. Banks" is the studio's side of the story - a carefully calibrated crowd-pleaser - where that sort of rough edge gets sanded away. I imagine if the filmmakers had tried to introduce too much real-life antagonism, they'd had been told to go fly a kite - in the nicest possible way, of course.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO FLY A KITE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (as characters) Up through the atmosphere. Up where the air is clear. Let's go fly a kite.

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