‘Saving Mr. Banks:’ Advance Film Review

The great comedian Jim Gaffigan has a word for adults like myself who are still fondly enamored with Disneyland; he calls us weirdos.  As much as I respect Mr. Gaffigan’s work as a comic, I don’t think he could be more off-base on this one.  He’s working from the faulty assumption that Walt Disney’s creative work was only aimed at children.  (To be sure, I do read an awful lot of people who seem to think that animation in general is exclusively kid stuff.  They’ve obviously never seen Heavy Metal.)  The genius of Disney, both as a businessman and as an artist, was that he was creating a body of work that can be enjoyed by all ages.  He wanted Disneyland to be a place families could enjoy together.  With the noted exceptions of the truly awful live-action sitcoms on the Disney Channel (ghastly shows like Dog with a Blog or Hannah Montana come to mind) that could only appeal to 9 year olds, the classic Disney brand has always been about all-ages entertainment.

In fact, throughout the years, Disney films have often been frequently accused of being far too intense or scary for younger kids.  After all, the sudden death or even murder of a parent is a consistent Disney theme.  I recently saw the stage version of The Lion King here in Los Angeles, and it finally sunk in for me that Simba has lived the vast majority of his life believing he’s responsible for the death of his own father.  Oh yeah, that’s kid stuff all the way.

Great storytelling, I believe, has always crossed demographic lines and is relatable to every possible corner of the audience.  Disney has always given us stories that are moving in real, palpable, human ways. Has that formula been wildly successful commercially?  You bet it has.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t great art.  Whether it’s the pain of seeing Mrs. Jumbo being shackled after protecting her son, the abject and surreal horrors of a trip to Pleasure Island, or two dogs violating every imaginable health code and sharing one very long strand of spaghetti in an Italian restaurant, Disney and his successors have left an indelible mark on our culture.  In fact, that mark is so lasting, I would wager you know what films all three of those scenes I just mentioned are from.

Saving Mr. Banks is the story of how difficult that process can be.

Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney. (Of course, he does.)  Who else is beloved enough to play such a beloved historical figure?  It’s 1961, and for 20 years Mr. Disney has been attempting to make a movie version of Mary Poppins.  His daughters were giant fans of the books, and he promised them he would make the books into a movie.  The only hitch in the plan is P.L. Travers (played by the great Emma Thompson), the author of the books who despises all things Disney. (She particularly hates cartoons.)  For two decades Mrs. Travers (She insists on being called by that formal title.) has spurned Disney’s overtures, but her income streams have dried up (A very difficult woman, Mrs. Travers refuses to write more Poppins books.), and she travels to Burbank to meet with the creative team about possibly selling the rights. 

Once in California, Mrs. Travers is forced to “collaborate” with screenwriter Don DiGradi (Bradley Whitford) and Disney’s in-house songwriting team, the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman).   Things don’t go well.  Mrs. Travers loathes every writing, music, and design choice that’s been made in pre-production.  She makes everybody’s life a living hell.

But, that’s just half the story.  Parallel-running flashbacks offer autobiographical insight into why the Mary Poppins character is so deeply personal to Mrs. Travers and why she is so deeply protective of her fictional creation.  This isn’t just an artist’s pretentiousness about her own work.  And, this being classic Disney, it’s all related to the death of a parent.  It’s a beautifully structured piece of screenwriting from a blacklisted script (The blacklist is an annual listing of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.) by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, and it allows the flinty Mrs. Travers to become a very sympathetic character as the movie plays out.   Difficult childhoods also provide Disney and Mrs. Travers a common ground on which to collaborate.  The script also offers a nice thematic discussion of the importance of autobiography in an artist's creative life.

The excellent script provides a great lead character, and Emma Thompson simply crushes it.  Mrs. Travers isn’t a very kind lady, but Thompson imbues her with such an innate sense of hurt and loneliness beneath the surface that the character is never off-putting, even when she seems completely unreasonable.  We know something is going on there, we just don’t know what it is yet.  It doesn’t hurt that her many verbal barbs are frequently laugh-out-loud funny. 

Hanks is fine as Disney, though he’s surprisingly not in the movie all that much.  To be sure, this is Mrs. Travers’ story, and Colin Farrell (playing her father in the flashback sequences) probably has more screen time than Hanks does.  Paul Giamatti has long been one of my favorite character actors, and he’s great here as Ralph, Mrs. Travers’ driver during her time in Los Angeles.  The two bond over Ralph’s disabled daughter’s love of the Mary Poppins books, and a scene near the end where Ralph drives Mrs. Travers to the Mary Poppins premiere is a lovely moment between them that’s never mawkish or sentimental.

And, make no mistake, this whole thing could easily be mawkish and sentimental enough to render it unwatchable.  Credit goes to director John Lee Hancock for walking the very thin line between pathos and bathos.  Directors make many choices, but often the most important one is a picture’s tone, and Hooker has made an emotionally honest movie that’s never just trying to shamelessly tug at your tear ducts. 

Saving Mr. Banks is a very satisfying movie, but it’s also a lot of fun.  Our preexisting knowledge of the Mary Poppins film allows for a lot of nifty, little Easter eggs, like Mrs. Travers insisting on just a spoonful of sugar in her tea.  And, a rehearsal hall version of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is as rousing here as it is in the finished film.  (Google "the Sherman brothers" some time and check out the absurd number of great songs, Disney or otherwise, they added to our culture.  Those two dudes are national treasures.)

Mary Poppins was released in 1964.  Mrs. Travers never liked the movie, but it was nominated for 13 Oscars and won five.  It’s number six on the AFI list of Greatest Film Musicals.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, check it out again soon.  Saving Mr. Banks is a worthy companion piece.  I think the Disney weirdos are going to love it.

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