“SAVING MR. BANKS” My rating: B+ (Opening wide on Dec. 20)
125 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
“Saving Mr. Banks” — a serio-comic look at Walt Disney’s tireless courtship of “Mary Poppins” author C. L. Travers — can be viewed either as a charming explanation of how one of the best family films of all time came to be made, or as an infuriating example of corporate self aggrandizement.
While cognizant of the latter, I’ll go with the former.
The latest from director John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie,” “The Blind Side”) is set during Travers’ two-week visit to L.A. in the early 1960s, arranged so that Disney — who more than two decades before had sworn to his wife and daughters that he would bring their favorite heroine of children’s literature to the screen — could coax, canjole and charm the dubious author into signing over the movie rights to her books.
Disney was nothing if not determined. Without authorization he had been working for years on the a screenplay and his in-house tunesmiths — brothers Robert and Richard Sherman — already had written the songs for what would be one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time.
“Mr. Banks” — a film about the Walt Disney Company made by the Walt Disney Company — stars Tom Hanks as Uncle Walt and Emma Thompson as Travers. They’re very good — especially Thompson — though I can’t help wondering how much of my massive emotional response to the film was the result of hearing snippets of the Sherman Brothers’ songs. All it takes is a few bars of “Chim Chim Cheree” or “Feed the Birds” to remind the viewer that it’s time to rewatch “Mary Poppins.”
As envisioned by screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, Travers is a rather fusty resident of London whose books have stopped selling and who is being urged by her agent to think seriously about selling out to the Philistines. She takes a dim view of Hollywood and especially the cartoony world created by Disney.
Walt, for his part, is used to getting what he wants, though he puts on a solicitous show, pouring on the charm and regaling Travers with personal stories from his less-than-perfect childhood in Kansas City (where his twice-a-day newspaper route amounted to virtual slavery). He even treats his guest to a special-access trip to Disneyland, an experience the dour lady ranks right up there with gout and oral surgery.
It takes little effort to imagine the fun these two actors could have with such iconic characters. Toss into the mix Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the musical Sherman Brothers (Travers insists that their lyrics represent the proper use of the Queen’s English) and Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi — not to mention Paul Giamatti as the friendly chaffeur who chisels away at Travers’ icy facade — and you can see the possibilities.
Where “Saving Mr. Banks” takes a big chance is in a series of extended flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in
Australia. Her mother (Ruth Wilson, recently seen as the red-headed serial killer in cable’s “Luther”) is neurotic and her bank clerk papa (Colin Farrell) is a hopeless drunk who lubricates his way through a series of ever-less-impressive jobs.
Finally his stern, nanny-like sister (Rachel Griffiths) arrives to hold down the fort as he wastes away. From our first glimpse of her umbrella and ramrod-straight carriage, it’s obvious that this was the inspiration for Mary Poppins.
And it also becomes apparent that Mr. Banks, the bank clerk father in “Mary Poppins” and the namesake of this movie, represents a fictionalized (if not precisely idealized) version of Travers’ doomed father. Small wonder she’s reluctant to give her creation over to Hollywood — the book is a complex bit of wish fulfillment for her beloved papa. What Disney suggests is sacrilege.
I prefer the film’s “modern” passages to the Australian flashbacks, but I’m not sure that the project would work without the latter laying the groundwork for a big payoff.
Hanks is a mix of the garrulous and the imperious as Disney. But the real star of the film is Thompson, who makes Travers a weirdly compelling (and deadpan huilarious) character. The problem (if you care about such things), is that the film makes Travers an uptight Brit grand dame…when in fact she was bisexual, never married, lived for years with a woman, and raised an adopted son (none of this is even hinted at).
Worst of all, the film has Travers being so moved watching “Mary Poppins” at its premiere that she weeps…and is handed a hankie by Disney. In fact, Travers hated the movie and rebuffed all of Hollywood’s efforts to make a sequel.
So what do you want from your movies? A feel-good experience or the uncomfortable truth? “Saving Mr. Banks” lays out yout options.
| Robert W. Butler