Saving Mr. Banks

January 16, 2014 by  

“Winds in the east / mist comin’ in / Like somethin’ is brewin, about to begin / Can’t put my finger on what lies in store / But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

That’s a foreshadowing thought from Bert in the Disney film “Mary Poppins”; it’s also used as the first and last words of narration in spoken-song by the father of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to begin “Saving Mr. Banks”, a biographical depiction of the development of her novel into the film. The story goes that it took Walt Disney 20 years to persuade Travers to sell the rights of her best selling book to him in order to make it into a film. This film is about the final weeks before she finally does indeed sign over “Mary Poppins” to Disney in 1961.

But it’s still not an easy fortnight. We are first introduced to Travers as a little girl living in Australia in 1906. She is sitting by herself, possibly daydreaming, until it fades into the adult Travers sitting in the same position when she is awakened out of her trance by her agent. At this moment, she still does not want to sell her book to Disney. Even after it’s revealed that Disney has given her full script approval, and the stipulation that there be no animation in the film, she still must be convinced to go to California and meet with Disney and Co. to go through the table readings.

Once she’s there, she butts heads with just about everyone who is involved with the script process, including the song writers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak respectively). She initially wants no singing, no “twinkling”, no cavorting, nothing. It must be proper, and English. The screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) allows the sessions to be recorded while she breaks in to the table reading to voice her disapproval with everything. She meets Disney (Tom Hanks) and gives him just as much trouble. But Disney is not willing to give up. He claims he has given a promise to his children that he’s kept for 20 years that he will bring “Mary Poppins” to life.

Meanwhile, we are given a back story to Travers’ life as a girl growing up in Australia. She has a seemingly normal family, except her father (Colin Farrell) is an obvious drunk who is also irresponsible. He seems to live in a fantasy world of his own, retreating into drinking when things get too hard. He also never calls her by her given name, which is Helen Goff. He is the real life Mary Poppins–but the film version of her, not the book. In the book, Mary Poppins is very proper. But he is reckless, and while he seems to care for his children, he treats them more as if they are participants in his fantasy world than actually as his children to raise and feel responsibility for.

This presents the conundrum that is P.L. Travers. She adored her father, looked up to him, and never wanted anything to spoil the relationship she had with him. We do find out there was an actual nanny to take care of her and her sister (played by Rachel Griffiths) who happens to be her aunt. She promises to “fix everything”, but is not at all into playing games and imagination. She disciplines the children while trying to take care of Travers’ father and mother once his health begins to fail. As we see her in adulthood, she has created a cold and hostile exterior because of the tragedies she experienced when she was a girl.

The giddy child in her does come out in one scene where the writers have invented an ending that allows Mr. Banks to fix his son’s kite and realize how important his children are to him. After all, that’s who Mary Poppins was “saving” to begin with–not the children. Then it all falls apart when she finds out that there will in fact be animation, for the penguins in the film. Until you see what her father means to her, you wonder why she is so hardened and against little specific things like animation and singing. But then it all comes together as part of something she is afraid of, which is really confronting what her father really was. She uses the character of Mr. Banks as a representation (her father was a banker) and at one session at the studio, she lashes out at everyone telling them what a good person Mr. Banks is.

“The woman is a conundrum,” says Walt Disney to one of the Sherman brothers after watching him perform “Feed the Birds” alone on the piano in an empty studio one night. Obviously we know that ultimately Travers does not get her way in the end. “Mary Poppins” indeed had animation, musical numbers–and, no sequels. That’s because Travers was so upset with the final product that she never again gave permission to Disney for any of her other works, including other volumes of the Mary Poppins series.

The performances here are exceptional, especially that of Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. You can feel her pain and even her suppressed emotions as she stares blankly at nothing. Colin Farrell is fine as her troubled father, and Hanks is right on pitch as Disney, never allowing the persona of Disney get in the way of his performance. He is still just a man, and just a character, and Hanks has always had an ability to play his characters on the right note. There’s also the character of the limo driver whom Travers befriends (“You’re the only American I’ve ever liked, she tells him) played by Paul Giamatti that adds a nice touch to the story. Whether this person actually existed, I’m not sure. But even as an invention, he works well.

The story is a sad one, but the film never overwhelms you with sentimentality that it becomes sappy. Its poignancy is never compromised. That’s what makes it a strong film and a fine directing job by John Lee Hancock. It’s a nice experience to rediscover why “Mary Poppins” is such a treasured classic; and it shows that show business can be very, very hard work, especially when there’s extremely guarded source material by a very strict author.

My rating: :-)

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