I remember seeing Mary Poppins, the 1964 Disney musical film based on the novel by author P.L. Travers, as a young child at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, where it had been revived for a short theatrical run. It was full of magic and color and fantasy, and was probably a life-changing experience for little me. I wanted Mary Poppins herself to come to my house. But now, having seen the origins of the character in Saving Mr. Banks – which premiered last week at AFI Fest 2013– I’m not so sure.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Saving Mr. Banks is an often wonderful film, but the nanny who floated in with the wind in Travers’ original story was not the delightful Julie Andrews that generations of viewers are familiar with. We not only meet a fictional version of the woman who may have inspired the character in director John Lee Hancock’s new film, but we also see the increasingly dark events of Travers’ childhood that fueled both her creativity and her reluctance to hand over the rights to her creation to Walt Disney, who spent 20 years in pursuit of them.
That pursuit provides the narrative backdrop of Saving Mr. Banks, which stars Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney. Both have emerged from tough childhoods to create their own magical kingdoms of sorts, although the latter’s clearly dwarfs the former’s. But while Disney sees his mission as bringing happiness to children all over the world, Travers has a much more limited worldview. She is aghast at the notion of Disney turning Mary Poppins into one of his “silly cartoons,” but is finally driven by financial need to travel to Hollywood (or more precisely, Burbank) on Walt’s dime and at least give a film adaptation a try.
Despite Disney’s charming ways (played perfectly by Hanks whether historically accurate or not), Travers seems resolutely determined to sabotage the project from the start. She makes one demand after another – no songs in the movie, no Dick Van Dyke as Bert the Chimney Sweep, no animation, no use of the color red – driving the writing team (Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi, and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as composers Robert and Richard Sherman) nuts. Eventually, this makes even the ever-patient Disney crack in exasperation. Yet at the same time, in a series of flashbacks, we learn the source of Travers’ insecurities – as well as her inspiration: Her youth in Australia as Helen Lyndon Goff and her poignant, complex relationship with her imaginative, but deeply troubled father (Colin Farrell in what could be a career-best role).
The art of storytelling – and the impulses and experiences that drive the urge to make up stories – are at the heart of Saving Mr. Banks. Both Disney and Travers share that urge, but for different reasons, although it is Disney, in a marvelous speech near the end of the film, who articulates the passion behind the craft. It is in that same scene that Disney finally puts into words the motivation behind Travers’ seemingly whimsical tale and allows her to come to terms with her past, which is also one of the most powerful forces behind the creation of most great fiction.
That’s why, despite Saving Mr. Banks being somewhat formulaic—even occasionally skating along the thin edge of being maudlin—it is ultimately both a compelling look at one of Hollywood’s most unlikely collaborations and a moving examination of how we use stories to exorcise our demons. Albeit, the latter of which played a larger role in this relationship’s ultimate outcome than the movie’s happier ending might suggest. Still, the scene where Travers sees and reacts to the finished film – her childhood memories crowding her mind alongside images from the screen – is powerful and unabashedly emotional, and surprised this writer into tears. Travers, as portrayed superbly by Thompson, can be an unreachable and frustrating figure for much of Saving Mr. Banks, yet we share that moment with her, and perhaps our own memories as well.
Thompson is fantastic as a woman who has carefully constructed a wall of disdain and self-denial around herself to keep the world from getting in. She and Hanks are also aided by terrific supporting work, as the actors all fight sentimentality, even as it frequently tries to squeeze its way into the story. A scene in which Travers’ driver (Paul Giamatti) discusses his handicapped child could have been a gooey mess but is held in check by the skill of the stars. Even when the script is too heavy-handed, as seen in some of the flashbacks and one late scene where Travers breaks down while dancing to a new tune the Shermans have concocted, the cast still handles it with a graceful touch.
Hancock (The Blind Side) keeps the story moving in steady, if unspectacular fashion, and the use of actual music from Mary Poppins can be inspired. The attention to period detail is also impressive, although it did take me out of the movie as a film journalist to see the modern Disney studio lot standing in for, uh, the old Disney lot. Still, what could have been a gratuitous celebration of the company itself – which has become a corporate behemoth perhaps even beyond old Walt’s grandest dreams – is instead an affirmation of the artform that allowed it to come into existence in the first place, allowing the creative mind to seek out the resolution that real life so often denies us. I may watch Mary Poppins with a whole new outlook next time.
Den Of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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