Friday, December 20, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks is practically perfect

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't love Walt Disney's Mary Poppins. The film is practically perfect in every way … but I'm sure there are a few sourpusses out there who hate the movie just as much as the character's creator, author P.L. Travers. The new film Saving Mr. Banks takes a look at Disney's twenty year struggle to get the film made while battling Mrs. Travers at every turn. You may never look at Mary Poppins the same way.

Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of the making of Mary Poppins, and gives us an insight into Mrs. Travers as well. When we first meet her, it's 1961 and she's just about out of money. Disney has been beating on her door for twenty years to secure the rights to her book (the movie actually uses material from three books), and with the prospect of losing her home before her, she agrees to her agent's requests to fly from London to Los Angeles just to meet with Disney to see what he has planned.

Disney tries his best to charm Mrs. Travers, but her demands of what he can and cannot do with the character turn to task of creating a film into a much larger chore than anyone thought it would be. No singing, no animation, nothing red! Travers holds an iron grip on the characters, and things come to a complete deadlock when she realizes that Disney and his creative team actually have no clue what the story is truly about.

But we do as the movie presents Travers' life as a child in flashbacks peppered throughout the film, showing us her doting father allowing her to run wild with her imagination … but also his darker side of alcoholism that constantly has his job in jeopardy and eventually leads to major health issues. When he become totally incapacitated, an aunt arrives to take care of the family and all of the pieces fall into place. Disney also eventually puts the pieces together, and it's no spoiler to say the film gets made and everyone lives happily ever after … at least in the movie world. The real life conclusion to this tale is a little less bright and shiny than we're led to believe.

That one little flaw aside, Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful film that's really targeted more to adult fans of Mary Poppins than it is to children. Emma Thompson portrays Travers as a tough-willed dame who comes off as a total bitch most of the time, but in the context of her life you have to have some understanding of why she holds on to these characters so tightly. They are her family and she does not want to let them go or be mistreated or misunderstood by some Hollywood bigwig (she hated the finished movie so much that she refused to sell the rights to any more of her Poppins books, although she did agree to the stage musical on the condition that only British writers worked on it and no one from the movie had any participation, which kept the Sherman Brothers from writing any new songs). A lot of people may find Travers unbearable, but I understood where she was coming from and Thompson manages to take some of the edge off of her while still keeping that steely will intact. She's definitely due some awards consideration.

Tom Hanks plays Disney as a down-homey business man. He knows what he wants and he'll do what he has to to get his way. It's a fine performance, but I'm on the fence about the way he uses a kind of sing-songy voice when he speaks to Mrs. Travers. I felt it was a little condescending, and perhaps Travers did too which was way she was so difficult to work with. She probably felt like she was being treated as a child or some rube from the countryside of England who had no idea how Hollywood worked (she didn't, but that's beside the point). It's a fine performance, but this being a Disney film, I don't think they really portrayed Disney on screen as he may have been behind closed doors. I mean, he had to have lost his temper at some point with the demands Travers was making. It would have been nice to see a little more of the dark side of Disney.

Colin Farrell gives a nice turn as Travers Goff, Travers' father (yes, she took her father's name professionally), never letting him be anything but a damaged soul. Goff may have been his own worst enemy, but he has nothing but love and kindness for his daughter even in his darkest hours. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman play Robert and Richard Sherman, the songwriting brothers who had to convince Travers that "responstible" was a real word (that they just made up) and that they could compose songs that weren't just fluff. Schwartzman gets most of the screen time, and he does a great job of sticking to his guns and never giving up in the face of Travers' naysaying. Paul Giamatti also gives a nice performance as the driver assigned to Travers during her stay in LA, and becomes the only American she can tolerate. He and Thompson have some very nice moments together.

Director John Lee Hancock keeps the film moving along once Travers arrives in Hollywood, getting out of the way and letting his actors do their work. Special mention must be made of the production design and art direction by Michael Corenblith and Lauren E. Polizzi, who have kept the film's period detail remarkably accurate, from a vintage stuffed Mickey Mouse to the look of Disneyland at that time. They really nailed the era.

Saving Mr. Banks may not be Best Picture material – it would have benefited from giving Disney and his team a little more depth instead of making Travers the complete villain of the piece – but it is pleasant and tells a very interesting story that's mostly true (stick around during the credits to hear some of the actual recordings made during the pre-production process and you'll get an idea that Thompson's Travers isn't too far from real life). It's one of those movies that actors are attracted to for rich characterization and awards possibilities, and the audience wins with a quality production that's both enlightening and entertaining.

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