Movie Review - Saving Mr. Banks
February 13, 2014
Making this the jolliest holiday of the year, SAVING MR. BANKS is,
quite frankly, practically perfect in every way. Based on the true account of the making of "Mary Poppins", SAVING MR. BANKS is the story behind the story; the battle of wills between studio titan Walt Disney and literary titan P.L. Travers as the man behind the mouse fought to fulfill a promise to his daughters, a promise to bring to life on the big screen the beloved story of the nanny with the bottomless carpetbag and talking parrot head umbrella. While it may have taken nearly 20 years from the time Roy Disney made the first overture to P.L. Travers and when Walt Disney finally got the movie made, the proof is in the pudding that the wait - and war - was worth it. Thanks to a mesmerizing transformation and brilliant performance by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and a meticulously spit-spot Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, rest assured your tuppence will be well spent with SAVING MR. BANKS.
As history tells us, P.L. Travers was more than reluctant to sell the rights for "Mary Poppins" to Walt Disney. Well known for his glorious eye-popping, sing-song animation, Travers' biggest fear was that Disney would turn her cherished characters and story into cartoonish folly, something which she could never abide for you see, Mary Poppins and the Bankses were "like family" to her and indeed, they were. Thanks to an artfully crafted script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the clash of the titans (Disney and Travers) is seamlessly melded with flashbacks of Pamela Travers' life as a child in the Australian outback, a life that found its way into the very characters and essence of all that would become "Mary Poppins."
For economic reasons, and at the insistence of her barrister and financier, Travers ultimately agrees to meet with Disney at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank for two weeks to discuss the proposed script. She would be working closely with screenwriter Don DaGradi and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. From the get-go, however, Travers is less than amused with the script and the idea of catchy songs, voicing her displeasure at every turn, especially at the incessant parade of candy and sweets brought in to the music rehearsal room on a tea trolley by a perpetually perky assistant named Dolly.
With Disney and the boys thwarted at every turn, it looks as though they will never get the rights to "Mary Poppins". Thanks to Travers' warm, golden-laced memories sparked by a line of dialogue in the script, or a glance out of the limo window or, perish the thought, some pears in a fruit basket in her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, we slowly learn why.
Like Mr. Banks, Travers' father, Travers Goff (Pamela Lyndon Travers was Helen "Ginty" Goff's pen name, taken out of her love for her father), was a bank manager. While Travers Goff lacked the gruffness of Mr. Banks in the story, he had another shortcoming. He was an alcoholic who would rather spend his days playing games and telling stories with his little daughters and kicking back at the local pubs with his friends than assume the responsibilities of supporting and caring for a family. With Mrs. Goff unable to cope with life out in the desolate country of Allora, having come from a monied family in Queensland, and a husband soon dying of alcoholism and consumption, an aunt comes to help the family. Arriving on a bright hot sunny day, she appears at the door with a strange looking umbrella wearing a hat, full length black coat and carrying a mysterious carpetbag filled with surprises and wonders. With the house in disarray and unkempt and Mr. Goff so sick, Aunt Ellie takes charge, making the home spit spot and assuring little Helen that her magical medicines in her carpetbag will cure Mr. Goff. Sadly, they didn't but little Helen/Pamela never forgot these images or the love of her father, incorporating everything into her characters and the stories of "Mary Poppins." And now, how can anyone expect her to let go of her family and let them be "handled" by Disney?
The only fictional character in SAVING MR. BANKS, limo driver Ralph is one person whom eventually breaks through Pamela Travers' tough veneer, allowing those sneaking peaks from windows and around corners to see a heart come shining through, a little girl lost. And it's Walt Disney who must then figure out how to tap into that heart as well if he is to win her over and get the rights to "Mary Poppins." Can he do it with the string of a kite?
Tom Hanks is nothing short of brilliant. Not only transformed by make-up, Hanks captures Walt Disney's folksy charm and well known vocal intonations and mannerisms that those of us growing up on weekly visits with Disney television anthology, among them, "The Wonderful World of Disney", "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color", "Disneyland", "Walt Disney Presents", immediately recognize. Mr. Disney was as a much as fixture for generations of children as Mickey Mouse and as result, bodes great familiarity. According to Hanks, that vocal cadence "took a while to figure out. But a lot of the little anecdotes that we found, specifically from the likes of Richard Sherman and were already in the screenplay, like Walt's cough. . .just ends up being one of the delightful cards in the deck." Key to Hanks was that "Diane Disney Miller gave me unlimited access to the archives and the museum in San Francisco. . .So, I had a lot of video and audio that I could work with which the only handicap, there was a lot of it is Walt Disney playing Walt Disney. . .There's an ocean of cadence to the man and that true sense that he believed everything that he said about his projects. And he completely embraced the possibilities of wonder in the movies that he was going to make as well as the rides he was going to come up with, and the things that he was going to build. I had a lot, I had a great road map in order to search it out." The result - Hanks gives a loving strong performance. Avoiding the controversial edge of Disney, the script strips away the elements of McCarthyism, Disney's three-pack-a-day-cigarette habit, and the harsher qualities of a major studio head, none of which are missed in Hanks' performance and the film as a whole, allowing us to instead be immersed in this one moment in time, this one chapter of the man who was Walt Disney.
With critics' awards and accolades already abounding, expect Oscar to come knocking on Emma Thompson's door on nominations morning. Prim, proper, enigmatic, stoic with perfectly clipped pronunciation, elocution and delicious rudeness, as P.L. Travers, Emma Thompson is front and center commanding every scene. Described by Thompson as being "the most extraordinary combination of things", Travers "wasn't consistent in any way. You would not what you would get from one moment to the next. You could have had a very close moment with her on one day - and I got this from her friends - and then the next day, they might have gone to see her and she would have treated them as if. . .[she didn't want t be bothered]." An emotional balancing act to rival a chimney sweep dancing on the edge of a rooftop, Thompson creates an emotional tapestry of nuance that captures the secretive joys of childhood, wistful longings of love for her father, and a paternal protectiveness that steals the heart. Fierce, fearsome and sympathetic all in the same moment. Thompson is magic.
Colin Farrell delivers one of his best performances as Travers Goff. Light and lilting, Farrell sweeps you into the joys of imagination and creativity and the freedom of childhood, lacing it with the pain of life, something analogous to Walt Disney and the uplifting and happy sugar-coated animation and storytelling for which Disney was and is so well known. Where Farrell really knocks it out of the park are his scenes with Annie Rose Buckley who plays the young Helen aka "Ginty." Joy personified.
Bradley Whitford captures Disney screenwriter Don DaGradi to a tee, making us feel both DaGradi's enthusiasm with the project and the exasperation with Mrs. Travers. But look no further than BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman as Robert and Richard Sherman for real purity and showmanship. From the ringing clarity of their voices chiming out "Feed the Birds" or "A Spoonful of Sugar" to Schwartzman's jaunty piano-playing styling that will have you believing Richard Sherman himself is at the old 88's, their performance soar as high as any kite. Schwartzman is so authentic and engaging that he should be garnering awards consideration.
As Disney secretarial assistant Dolly, Melanie Paxson is the epitome of sugar and spice and everything nice that Disney represented in the 1960's. Bubbly, perky, squeaky clean with never a frown or cross word, as Dolly, Paxson is all that is the image of Disney rolled into one.
No surprise here is scene-stealer Paul Giamatti. As Travers' chauffeur Ralph, Giamatti is the touchstone of the heart and purity and all that Disney ever hoped to achieve. Giamatti is the kite string that grounds the film to reality and then lets it soar as the key to freeing Travers' heart. Watch Giamatti as Ralph talking about his little girl in a wheelchair. Your heart will swell and your eyes tear up. Tissues please!
Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the story effortlessly melds present day 1961 with Pamela Travers' childhood in 1906 Australia. With not only P.L. Travers writings and journals incorporated into an earlier biography by Valerie Lawson and 2002 Australian tv documentary entitled "The Shadow of Mary Poppins" to draw from, that alone gave Marcel and Smith a strong script foundation. But then toss in the Disney archives and the audio recordings made at the insistence of Travers of every meeting between Travers, DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers, plus recollections of the studio daily activities during this time of Richard Sherman himself, and the result is a fully realized story with complete contextual reference. As Hanks notes, "There is a lot of anecdotal information that kept coming to us. There were people, who knew Walt, and they still have access to the studio. . .they searched us out. Richard Sherman was, a never-ending, literally, never-ending, fountain of stories, of facts, of anecdotes, bits and pieces of everything that had happened."
Directed by John Lee Hancock, SAVING MR. BANKS is as timeless as it is effortless in its storytelling magic. Cinematographer John Schwartzman uses soft widescreen lensing that captures the nostalgic filmic sensibility of 1961, keeping light softly diffused in Burbank, a bit crisper in the Travers' London home and then golden and warm for the Australian sequences. Capitalizing on the ability to shoot on the relatively unchanged Disney lot and in rehearsal studios where the real events occurred in 1961, Schwartzman makes the most of wider two-shots, saving close-ups for intimate, emotionally intense moments of Thompson deep in thought or Hanks and Thompson talking about their respective families - Mickey Mouse and Mary Poppins.
Costuming is period perfect for both 1906 and 1961, seamlessly visually transporting us through time with Mary Poppins-efficiency. Production design excels, thanks in large part to the majority of lensing taking place on the Disney lot, which has remained relatively unchanged since 1961.
Cinephiles and film historians will appreciate not only the recreation of the premiere of "Mary Poppins" at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, but, in a real coup, Hancock and company were able to shoot at Disneyland to recreate a seminal moment in the Disney-Travers relationship. This is only the third time in history that a film has lensed at Disneyland and as described by Hancock, it was executed with "a kind of military precision." Presenting its own set of challenges, "We carefully went down there and scouted it many, many times with lenses, because if you would pan this far over here, it would be something from 1981; pan to the left and it's 1969. So, [it was] trying to solve those problems. . .You're so worried and prepared for the day, and you've got that ahead of you, 'Are we gonna do it, we gonna get everything done?' But then there was just that moment with the sun coming up, and I thought, 'Damn, this is cool.'"
SAVING MR. BANKS is beyond cool. You won't need a spoonful of sugar to taste the sweet charm of this story. It's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
Cast: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Paul Giamatti