Melissa is back with a review of Disney's Saving Mr. Banks which opens in theaters today, December 13, 2013.
“Saving Mr. Banks”, very simply, is a movie about making a movie. More specifically, it is a Disney movie that recounts the relationship between P.L. Travers (the always-on-point Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (a lack-luster Tom Hanks) in the early 1960s as Disney is exerting all his power of persuasion and salesmanship to coax Travers into selling him the rights to her beloved children’s book “Mary Poppins”.
The movie opens on Travers, cantankerous and irritable, in her London home, frustrated and desperate as her agent twists her arm to get her to finally consider selling the movie rights to her “Mary Poppins” books to Walt Disney, who has persistently pursued her for 20 years because he sentimentally “promised his daughters” he would turn the cherished story into a movie. In the extremity of her financial woes, she agrees, but kicking-and-screaming. She is cranky, proud, and on the defensive, fiercely protecting her art and wrestling for every detail of creative control. She is wholly unimpressed and even affronted by the “Magic Kingdom” where Disney rules as His Royal Highness—she refuses to be moved by the mammoth Disney machine, which proves a weak opponent for her firm British footing as she takes the strong stance that every artist must when protecting their art, which she describes as “family” to her. This assertion as well as the natural like-ability of Thompson, keeps us rooting for the crotchety author, even though we know that if she gets her way in the end, “Mary Poppins” will never get to the big screen (and of course we already know it does). I kept thinking throughout this movie, that if Travers disagreed so much with the adaptation of her fiction, surely she would detest this film that presumes to retell actual events.
B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, and Brandley Witford play the much-honored creative team of Robert and Richard Sherman (arguably the best movie songwriters of all time who eventually won two Academy Awards for their music in “Poppins”) and Don Dagradi (screenwriter), who spend most of the movie wrestling with Travers over every detail of their proposed “Poppins” movie, from the screenplay to the set-design, the songs, lyrics, casting, and even Mr. Banks’ mustache. These scenes prove to be some of the most enjoyable of the film, because they show the nitty-gritty of the making of one of the most beloved movies of all time. It is especially wonderful to watch the songs that we know and love so well being born before our eyes.
The events that take place in Hollywood in 1961 are only half of the story, often the less-interesting half, and surely the less mysterious. Interspersed throughout the Travers vs. Disney tale, are flashbacks of Travers growing up in Australia in the early 1900s. This is the real back-story that brings weight, depth, and heart to the “Poppins” fiction. Travers, who is Helen Goff in her childhood, masterfully and heart-wrenchingly played by the young Annie Rose Buckley, is as innocent, fresh, curly-headed, and imaginative as every child should be. She worships her whimsical, charming father, the real-life Mr. Banks, Travers Goff (beautifully and sympathetically played by Colin Farrell), whose life is unraveling due to alcoholism. (Colin Farrell almost steals the show. His name surely should be on the poster before Tom Hanks, whose portrayal of Disney is imitative at best.) As we get to know P.L. Travers through her memories of her time with her father, we begin to understand and love the fictional “Poppins” characters even more. These flashback scenes are the soul of this movie, beautifully filmed, acted and directed (John Lee Hancock).
This film progressed relatively predictably, but beautifully and enjoyably. However, I felt that the end fizzled a bit as the transformation of Travers attitude came about a bit abruptly, and therefore unbelievably. Tom Hanks has his this-is-why-they-pay-him-the-big-bucks moment in a touching monologue that eventually changes Travers’ heart (Good ol’ Walt, what a salesman!). “Mary Poppins” gets made, and Travers goes to the premiere in Los Angeles. This end scene weaves “Mary Poppins”, with the 1906 childhood flashbacks, and Travers in 1965 at the premiere—layering images and sound bites that finally tie all of the elements together into a story about a girl and her beloved father; a tribute to a life fiercely loved and lost too soon. The last 8 minutes was a beautiful storytelling dance that can only be achieved through the medium of film, and was worth the price of admission.
Side note: As a period piece depicting both the early 1900s and the 1960s, this movie sings. The costumes are perfect. The look and feel of the 1960s scenes are as transportive as a time machine. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver Ralph, “the only American [she] ever liked”. In this fictionalized retelling, Ralph is the sugar that helps the medicine go down.