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Books

A Christmas Carol

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Charles Dickens’ seasonal masterpiece A Christmas Carol is one of the greatest stories of all time, and I will brook no argument with that. The original novella is not merely a flawlessly executed narrative with exquisite dialogue and prose; it contains, at its heart, the most brilliantly convincing argument for acting with kindness and charity towards ones fellow human beings – and not just at Christmas.

However, even if you detest A Christmas Carol (in which case, I pity you) consider just these two aspects of its impact on western culture:

1) It seems virtually impossible to make a bad film out of it. There have been many adaptations over the years, in film and TV. My personal favourites are the 1951 monochrome masterpiece with Alistair Sim, the 1992 Muppet version, and the much underrated 2009 Robert Zemeckis motion capture version with Jim Carrey. It does seem that one has to actively try to make a bad version of A Christmas Carol. The story seems idiot proof in that respect, and not all great stories are idiot proof. For example, it would have been very easy indeed to make a bad film of Life of Pi or The Lord of the Rings.

2) Ever since the story was first published, grouches who dislike Christmas are battered with the Bah Humbug! stick.

These days it is trendy to complain about the soulless commercialisation of Christmas, and certainly celebrating without understanding or appreciating why is an empty experience. But once one does understand why, the reason for spending more than usual on food, drink, presents and so forth becomes abundantly clear. Ebenezer Scrooge moans about people spending their money on frivolities at Christmas, but once he understands the reason they purchase said frivolities he becomes a changed man.

Thus, because of A Christmas Carol, seasonal naysayers will forever be greeted with the dismissive “Bah Humbug!” response. This is shorthand for “Remember why we celebrate Christmas in the first place” with all it’s connotations of what Scrooge was like before his redemption. Deep down, even the most miserly and anti-social don’t want to be thought of as a Scrooge.

Love it or loathe it, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol had a profound impact on our culture, as did many of his other works.

Merry Christmas!

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Film Reviews Films

My ten favourite films of 2013

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Before I list my ten best films of 2013, I am once again compelled to mention those that narrowly missed out. It is with great regret, therefore, that I name Saving Mr Banks, The Conjuring, Frozen, Byzantium, Prisoners, Rush, Mud, A Hijacking and I Wish as films that almost but didn’t quite make the shortlist.

Also a quick note for non-UK residents: to qualify for this list the film must have been released in the UK in 2013 – hence some of the major Oscar contenders (such as 12 Years a Slave) are not in the running.

One final point: I have yet to see Robert Redford’s supposedly superb All is Lost (released on Boxing Day), so I may later amend this list. However for now, in order of merit, my ten best films of 2013 are as follows:

10. Nebraska – Alexander Payne’s slow but warmhearted father/son road movie contains much of his usual offbeat, darkly comic, melancholy schtick. It also throws up interesting subject matter including economic downturn in the Midwest, small town racism, aging veterans and more. Beautiful monochrome vistas too.

Best Bit: The hilariously inappropriate comments in the graveyard.

9. Zero Dark Thirty – Whatever the controversies surrounding this depiction of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Katherine Bigelow’s film is absolutely first-rate. Jessica Chastain is brilliant as usual in the lead role – a woman whose entire existence is defined by her obsession with tracking down Bin Laden.

Best Bit: The riveting climactic raid, shorn of all machismo with professionals merely carrying out their job.

8. The Place Beyond the Pines – Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Dane DeHaan excel in this modern Greek tragedy exploring – in epic fashion – difficult relationships between fathers and sons. Some argued the film was flawed by the plot being too neat, but that didn’t bother me one bit. In fact, I found it a properly upsetting experience (that’s a compliment, by the way).

Best Bit: (SPOILER WARNING) The shot of the motorbike zooming away at the end is quite possibly the most heartbreaking image I have seen all year.

7. The Great Gatsby – Unfairly trounced by critics, this was a remarkable interpretation of Fitzgerald’s classic novel. Baz Luhrmann’s unique visual style, bold musical choices and a terrific performance by Leonardo DiCaprio are only three reasons this is far from the turkey so many claimed it to be. Its themes are both timely (capitalist excess, moral decadence) and timeless (romantic obsession).

Best Bit: The hotel room showdown between Gatsby and Daisy’s boorish husband Tom.

6. Wreck-It Ralph – This animated Disney gem based in a computer game world was an unexpected blast of pure joy from beginning to end. In the run-up to this film’s release I had subjected myself to the likes of Amour and Zero Dark Thirty, and had almost forgotten what it was like to feel better coming out of a cinema than when you went in.

Best Bit: The ridiculous – and absolutely hilarious – romantic subplot between Fix-It Felix Jr and the tough-as-nails soldier from the space bug game.

5. Philomena – This hugely powerful true story of a journalist helping an Irish woman track down her lost son decades after he was taken from her by the Catholic church (via the notorious Magdalene laundries) has an undercurrent of seething rage lurking beneath its entertaining, odd-couple dynamic. Great performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

Best Bit: The final confrontation when the journey comes full circle. Those who have seen the film will know what I mean.

4. Captain Phillips – Another true story, this time that of the eponymous Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), whose harrowing tussle with Somali pirates is recreated to utterly riveting effect in this nail-chewing and uber-realistic thriller from Paul Greengrass. Incidentally Danish film A Hijacking offered a very different but no less gripping look at the Somali piracy issue, and was another strong candidate for this list.

Best Bit: (MAJOR SPOILER WARNING) The final scene where Phillips is treated for shock; simultaneously a bravura piece of acting and a stunning depiction of the appalling consequences of undergoing such violent trauma. In effect it completely debunks years of Hollywood action movie histrionics.

3. Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s remarkable drama features a career-best performance from Cate Blanchett as Jasmine; a socialite trying to rebuild her life following her husband’s prosecution for financial fraud. Selfish, snobby, self-deluded and condescending, Jasmine ought to be insufferable yet Blanchett makes her live and breathe so brilliantly that one ends up feeling sorry for her. Great supporting cast too (including the always wonderful Alec Baldwin).

Best Bit: When we discover who really tipped off police about Jasmine’s husband, and why…

2. Gravity – A fantastic rebuttal to those who claim cinema is a spent force and that the most interesting drama is on TV these days. Technically this is a cinematic triumph to stand alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Gravity is not actually science fiction. In essence the plot is little more than a survival B-movie is space, but it is done so well with great performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It absolutely must be seen on a big screen, ideally in 3D.

Best Bit: Where Bullock experiences what is either a message from God in Clooney form, or a hallucination brought on by lack of oxygen. Either way, the metaphysical aspect of this story is every bit as powerful as the stomach flipping disaster sequences.

1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – The lure of Middle-Earth once again proves too much for me. Objectively speaking Gravity probably deserves the accolade as best film of 2013 more, but personally I can’t get enough of hobbits, dwarves, elves and orcs. And since this is my list, this second instalment of Peter Jackson’s trilogy adapting Tolkien’s novel is at the top almost by default. That said, don’t take my decision with too much salt as this is still a top-flight, five star blockbuster thrill ride that will leave you gagging for next year’s concluding film.

Best Bit: Bilbo’s conversations with Smaug – every bit as memorable in the film as they are in the book. Or maybe the bit with the barrels…

It only remains for me to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Simon Dillon, December 2013.

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Books

Do short stories make better films than novels?

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I recently read a selection of Daphne Du Maurier short stories including Don’t Look Now, which later became a classic horror film. I had never read the Du Maurier original so was pleased to find it was – along with the other stories in the Don’t Look Now volume – utterly brilliant. There are some differences compared with the film, but for the most part the essentials are the same.

This got me thinking about other classic films based on short stories – everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Stanley Kubrick once remarked that short stories were better to adapt into films than novels, because novels generally contained too much material to do the story justice. Short stories, by contrast, he felt were a skeleton on which he could add cinematic flesh.

That was certainly true of the afore-mentioned Kubrick classic, which followed the plot of Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel and expanded it into a cinematic landmark. By contrast, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (both the 1947 original and the recent remake) took only the basic premise of James Thurber’s original and expanded into something else entirely. On the page, Thurber’s daydreaming protagonist ultimately fantasises about his own death by firing squad – a much darker conclusion than that of either film version. But the central idea could be developed in any number of different ways, as both films prove.

Blade Runner (based on Phillip K Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep?) is another good example that springs to mind. Ridley Scott merely uses the basic story as a hook on which to hang his extraordinarily influential view of the future – one that greatly expands on the original in ways that have been debated ever since. Had Blade Runner been based on a more densely plotted source, the story would almost certainly have collapsed under the sheer weight of Scott’s cinematic vision.

Of course there are many great films based on great novels, so I don’t think Kubrick was right necessarily. In any event, he seemed reluctant to heed his own advice on a number of occasions (his 1975 adaptation of Thackery’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, for instance). But I do think there is some truth to the notion that it is easier to expand on a good short story idea in a film rather than attempt to convey a much larger narrative.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Surprisingly, the first Hobbit film met with mixed reactions. I’ve never been able to understand why. This second instalment is at least on a par with the first, though that may not be high praise to some. It’s certainly a much more action packed affair, with a breathless succession of fantastic set pieces and thrilling adventures that make the 160 odd minute running time fly by. Frankly, I loved it.

The Desolation of Smaug begins where An Unexpected Journey left off, with those pesky orcs and wargs still on the trail of Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the rest of the dwarfs. All major events from the middle section of the story are present and correct, even though Peter Jackson has played very fast and loose with Tolkien’s original novel, no doubt to the irritation of some purists (though not me). Thorin and company encounter shape-shifter Beorn, giant spiders, wood elves (less wise but more dangerous than their Rivendell kin), Laketown, and of course the magnificent confrontation with Smaug the dragon.

The visual effects department have excelled themselves with Smaug. Not only is he a massive, menacing and scary presence, his vain, wily, greedy, vindictive personality has been tremendously brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch’s motion capture performance and vocal talents. He is a first rate villain, and the action inside the Lonely Mountain at the finale provides a thrilling and dramatic – if ultimately cliffhanging – climax. Elsewhere Martin Freeman is as fantastic as ever in the lead role, particularly in the delicate conversations with Smaug, a similar scene to his encounter with Gollum in the previous film.

The returning cast all do well, even though there is a lot less of Gandalf this time. He’s busy investigating dark developments in the evil fortress of Dol Guldor with fellow wizard Radagast (former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy). Orlando Bloom’s Legolas also turns up and gets more than his fair share of silly stunts, particularly in the stunning barrel escape which provides one of the film’s most exciting and funny set pieces. Hard core Tolkienites will be less pleased with the introduction of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who is, by Peter Jackson’s own admission, a character deliberately introduced to provide a female presence. I found her a perfectly acceptable character, despite also providing a fairly pointless pseudo-love interest for Legolas (and bizarrely Aidan Turner’s Kili). Steven Fry also turns up as the slimy, conniving Master of Laketown, and Luke Evans provides the necessary grim theatrics for the character of Bard.

Jackson’s directorial flair is as evident as ever, particularly his trademark vertigo inducing shots. In fact, every other scene seems to take place next to a huge chasm of one kind or another. Said chasms are the superlative work of Jackson’s army of production designers and visual effects staff. There are some particularly inspired sets; including Beorn’s house (where old fashioned creative use of scale is used), the Elven halls, Laketown and most memorably Smaug’s treasure laden lair. Howard Shore’s music mingles some fine new themes with the old, and the New Zealand locations look as spectacular as ever. Like all Middle Earth films this demands to be seen at the cinema.

Even if Tolkien would have disapproved of some of the liberties taken here, he certainly would have approved of the way the moral integrity of the story is maintained. Themes of misuse of power, greed and how evil spreads when the good do nothing are if anything even more explicit here than they are in the book. I could pick the odd nit (such as an unnecessary innuendo laden exchange between Kili and Tauriel that will mercifully go over the heads of the children) but in the end The Desolation of Smaug is much like the book on which it is based: fast, exciting and great fun.

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Books

Christmas present ideas… (shameless book plug)

In case you’re still looking for Christmas presents, why not give one of my novels a go? Ideally for ages around ten and up, these adventure stories will be appreciated by the young and young at heart alike. They are available from Lulu.com as paperbacks and also digitally in various formats for those with Kindles or gadgets of that ilk.

Yes, I appreciate this is a shameless plug, but if you haven’t read any of these books yet, I think you might enjoy them. Let me know what you think afterwards by either leaving a comment on this blog, or a review online (preferably on the Amazon page), or by emailing me at uncleflynn.gmail.com.

Books currently available are:

George goes to Mars (George Hughes book 1)

From the back cover:

When George Hughes discovers he has inherited the planet Mars, he goes from poverty to becoming the richest boy on Earth overnight.

Accompanied by his new guardian, a mysterious secret agent and a crew of astronauts, George voyages to Mars to sell land to celebrities wanting to build interplanetary holiday homes. But sabotage, assassination attempts and the possibility of an alien threat plunge him into a deadly adventure…

Also available FREE from Smashwords (see link below) and various other places including Goodreads and Barnes and Noble.

Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/136132

Print copies can be ordered from: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/george-goes-to-mars/paperback/product-21336550.html

George goes to Titan (George Hughes book 2)

From the back cover:

The thrilling sequel to George goes to Mars…

A year on from his adventures on Mars, George Hughes faces an even deadlier peril as he travels to Titan on an urgent rescue mission. The mysterious Giles returns to help him, but assassins are once again on his tail, and a new, far greater alien menace lurks in the shadows waiting to strike. 

Also available from Smashwords and various other places including Goodreads and Barnes and Noble.

Print copies can be ordered from: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/george-goes-to-titan/paperback/product-21336576.html

Uncle Flynn

From the back cover:

Max Bradley is a timid eleven year old boy with many fears. But when he embarks on a hunt for buried treasure on Dartmoor with his mysterious and dangerous Uncle Flynn, Max’s life looks set to change forever. Together they decipher clues, find a hidden map and explore secret tunnels in their search. But with both police and rival treasure hunters on their tail, Max begins to wonder if his uncle is all he seems.

A gripping and thrilling adventure for all ages.

Also available from Smashwords and various other places including Goodreads and Barnes and Noble.

Print copies can be ordered from: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/uncle-flynn/paperback/product-21165126.html

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Frozen

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Frozen, the latest Disney animated extravaganza, is apparently “from the creators of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph” – very high praise as far as I’m concerned. Whilst it isn’t of quite the same calibre as the afore-mentioned gems, it is a very fine piece of work and ticks all relevant boxes for a satisfying seasonal family film.

Very loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, the plot concerns estranged royal sisters Elsa and Anna. The former flees into self-imposed exile when she finds she can no longer control her magical ability to freeze things. Anna undertakes a journey to persuade Elsa to return and unfreeze the kingdom, along the way juggling two potential love interests, a reindeer that behaves like a dog (akin to the horse that behaves like a dog in Tangled) and an adorable magic snowman called Olaf. Hilarity and peril ensues, involving precipitous mountain ranges, ice palaces, snow monsters, trolls, wolves, traitorous courtiers and more, all set against stunningly animated snowy landscapes resembling Norway, complete with occasional Northern Lights. Oh, and there’s a bunch of songs too.

Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee take their time getting started, but once Olaf appears things get a lot faster and funnier. The vocal cast are good, and the animation is top notch. It is also extremely pleasing to see a film of this nature that doesn’t revolve around romance (at least not directly) but instead the love between two sisters, both of whom are well-rounded, interesting characters. The true-love-is-sacrifice moral has been done before many times, but it’s effectively reiterated here to very pleasing effect.

In short, Frozen is well worth a look. Don’t arrive late, because you’ll miss the supporting cartoon Get A Horse – a laugh-out-loud treat that cleverly mixes the hand drawn monochrome Mickey Mouse shorts of old with modern colourful 3D digital animation.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Nebraska

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With each new Alexander Payne film, I wonder what manner of offbeat, achingly sad insight into the human condition he will offer next. Nebraska has a father/son road movie dynamic, and as such succeeds admirably within the Payne oeuvre.

Shot in beautiful widescreen monochrome that displays bleak mid-West landscapes to stunning effect (it needs a big screen), the film is anchored by a remarkable performance from the legendary Bruce Dern, playing aging, booze-addled Woody Grant. Convinced he has won a million dollars after being sent a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing letter, Woody is determined to make the journey from Montana to Nebraska to claim the money – even if he has to walk (his driving licence has been revoked). Reluctantly Woody’s somewhat estranged younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive his father to Nebraska, knowing full well he almost certainly hasn’t won anything. Along the way, he gradually gets to discover things he never knew about his father, particularly when they pass through the town he grew up in.

Although a downbeat, melancholy piece, Nebraska is shot through with warmth and dark humour. Like Payne’s other work, this is a slow burn piece that requires patience, but it rewards the viewer by gradually getting under the skin in subtle, profound and moving ways. The film isn’t just about the rekindling of a father/son relationship either, but also touches on themes of small town racism, economic ruin in the mid-West, and how quickly honourable military service is disregarded and forgotten (even if it resulted in post traumatic stress disorder).

That might make Nebraska sound heavy and depressing, but I actually found it life-affirming and surprisingly funny. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but Alexander Payne is one of the true auteur directors currently working, and he is at the peak of his powers with this film.

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Books

Watership Down: A one way ticket to post traumatic stress disorder?

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Richard Adams’s Watership Down is one of my favourite books. In fact, it is one of only a very small handful of novels to actually make me cry (during the final couple of pages). I also enjoyed the 1978 animated film, which captures the mood of the text very well.

However, it is also true that many, many people from my generation consider Watership Down (the book and more notoriously the film) to be one of the most singularly traumatic experiences of their childhood – and not in a good way! A recent article on film critic Mark Kermode’s blog discussing U certificate films featured a comment from one person who described Watership Down as a “one way ticket to post traumatic stress disorder” without any hint of irony.

I agree the film should not have been rated U, even by 1978 standards. An “A” classification (PG these days) would have been more appropriate. There are enough strongly disturbing images in the film – including nightmarish visions of the warren apocalypse and the bloody mauled rabbits – to make a U classification a misguided decision at best. To this day the BBFC receive annual complaints about Watership Down. However, because the film has never been resubmitted, it still has a U rating.

But such controversy should not, in my opinion, detract from what is an altogether remarkable book. Adams’ stunningly vivid descriptions of the English countryside – at rabbit level – are among the best in all of English literature. The smells, textures and tastes of every leaf, twig and acorn are conveyed with remarkable skill.

Furthermore the story – about a group of rabbits fleeing their warren when one of their number foresees destruction at the hands of property developers – had a profound impact on me as a child. The second half of the book in particular, where they happen upon a Soviet Union-esque warren led by villainous General Woundwort, really made me think about the nature of freedom, and why it is worth fighting for. Yes, there are traumatic moments throughout, but they vital to the story.

Ultimately Watership Down is not a very specific allegory, unlike Orwell’s Animal Farm. Woundwort’s warren could just as easily represent Nazi Germany or any number of oppressive totalitarian regimes. But the book was something of a gateway drug to Orwell, and as such retains my greatest affections.

Why then did so many others of my generation not have a similar experience? Whenever I mention Watership Down to anyone my age, almost without exception they turn pale and speak as though recalling the deaths of their comrades on the front lines in Vietnam. Surely there must be others out there that don’t just see Watership Down as a book or film that massively upset them as a child, but as a story that helped shape their morality and view of the world.

Or am I alone in this?

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Saving Mr Banks

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As a love letter to Mary Poppins – as far as I’m concerned one of the greatest films ever made – Saving Mr Banks succeeds admirably. The main attraction is a tremendous central performance from Emma Thompson as the spiky PL Travers, whose extreme reluctance to hand over the Mary Poppins film rights to Walt Disney is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Finding herself short of money, Travers finally agrees to meet with Disney (played here by Tom Hanks at his most charming), but finds herself in constant disagreement with his vision for the story, along with that of screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and music legends the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak).

On this evidence, it is astonishing that Mary Poppins was made at all, but with Disney on an all-out charm offensive, Travers was eventually won over – in spite of her subsequent, well-documented dislike for the film. Apparently she loathed the animated sequence, didn’t think it should be a musical, and was dismayed at how Disney removed all the darker edges of the original text.

In truth, Disney’s actions during the making of the film are justifiable for one critical reason – he created something brilliant in its own right. The novels remain a much more sinister, edgier experience but of course the film has become a classic – one loved by generations for decades. Mary Poppins the film is nigh-on perfect and it is very difficult to suggest that it needs to be darker with a straight face. Besides, the books don’t have all those wonderful songs.

There is a moment in this film – I’ve no idea whether or not it is apocryphal – where Travers first hears the song Lets go fly a kite and is suddenly all but won over to what Disney is trying to do with her material. What the scene demonstrates is the extraordinary power of that song. It somehow conveys exhilaration and sheer joy in a way that few other musical pieces do (the only equivalent example I can think of is John Williams’ Flying theme from ET).

At the core of the film is a moving story about Travers’ past, revealed through flashbacks that detail her relationship with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). She and Disney ultimately draw on the tragic experiences of their respective fathers to create the stunningly feel-good ending for the film. The power of storytelling and myth as an instrument of healing in a flawed, broken world is a key theme, and one that I think will resonate with anyone, regardless of their love (or otherwise – there are some and I feel sorry for them) for Mary Poppins.

Again, I have no idea how true any of this really is. I suspect is it certainly true in spirit, but although Thompson delivers a very plausible version of Travers, I rather imagine Disney has had his edges taken off, for fear of damaging the brand. There are occasional hints of a darker side (at one point DaGradi is heard to utter “Man is in the forest” just before Disney bursts into one of their meetings), but on the whole the Uncle Walt represented here is unambiguously benevolent.

Ironically, my favourite part of the film did not concern Travers relationship with Disney, but her relationship with her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). And yet again, I’ve no idea how true it is, but I found his humble kindness, along with the small moments of wisdom he offers, to be as fine an example of Christ-likeness I have seen in any film this year.

All things considered, Saving Mr Banks is a fine companion piece to one of the greatest family films ever made.