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SAVING MR. BANKS… A moving tribute to the creative process and “Mary Poppins”

Posted on December 27th, 2013
Posted on December 27th, 2013

by Coop Cooper

The 1964 Disney film “Mary Poppins” holds an important place in the hearts of many who grew up with the songs and the movie. It is no surprise that Walt Disney himself orchestrated it that way, but few know what great lengths he went through to get permission to film it. The original series of books it was based on was beloved by Disney’s daughter and he made a promise he would turn it into a movie for her. Little did he know that P. L. Travers, the author of the books, would be such a difficult negotiator and it took Disney twenty years to secure the rights.

In “Saving Mr. Banks”, Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson), desperate for money, travels to Los Angeles to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to discuss adapting the Mary Poppins books into a blockbuster film. The generally unpleasant and obsessive-compulsive Travers refuses to agree to anything and quickly intrudes on the scripting process, intimidating everyone involved including Disney himself. After a long period of conflict between Travers, Disney and the other creative heads, Travers begins to see potential in their inspired songs and passion for the material. Meanwhile, the story frequently flashes back to Travers’ childhood in Australia, providing glimpses of why she is so protective of the characters in her books.

Travers verbally abuses or insults anyone she comes in contact with. It’s difficult to like her, much less identify with her until halfway through the film but Thompson handles her expertly and completely disappears into the role, saving her humanity for the meaningful moments near the end. Her transformation from scary spinster into a (sometimes) wonder-eyed optimist is a beautiful one. She remains complex and watching her see the “Mary Poppins” on the screen for the first time is one of the most rewarding parts of the story. I hope to see her get an Oscar nomination for this.

Hanks is predictably charming as Disney. He never loses his cool with Travers and does everything to please her but doesn’t truly connect with her until he meets her on common ground. He does remind me of the Walt Disney from the “Wonderful World of Disney” TV show and I suspect that is the source that Hanks mined in order to develop his manner and euphemisms. His final speech to Travers when all hope seems lost is the finest moment in the film. Too bad he’s going to get a nomination for “Captain Phillips” or else he could’ve had a chance at one here also.

Paul Giamatti, in a small but meaningful role, plays Travers’ chauffeur while in Los Angeles and the two share an unlikely but moving bond. His inclusion pays off nicely in the end when he makes his final, surprise appearance.

Colin Farrell provides an outstanding performance as Travers’ loving but beleaguered, alcoholic father. His heartbreaking storyline becomes the entire inspiration for Travers’ books and the tragic reason behind her adulthood oddities. It goes into some dark places, well beyond the tone of “Mary Poppins” but a positive twist in the backstory signals a turnaround in the mood of Mrs. Travers which culminates in a great scene where a trip to Disneyland gets under her toughened skin.

There are some beautiful moments in the film, like watching the two songwriters (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak) breaking their backs to create wonderful music for the film despite the fact that Travers refuses to allow music – or even the color red – into the film.

I’m most impressed by the script which is expertly written and should get a “Best Original Screenplay” Oscar nomination. It hits all the right notes and gives the characters plenty of both comedic and dramatic dialogue to play with. It also manages to integrate some of the best songs and moments from “Mary Poppins” to give the story greater weight.

The film is a crowd-pleaser especially for fans of “Mary Poppins”. It makes you immediately want to see the original 1964 film again to soak it all in. As an added Easter egg, actual recordings of Travers giving her fastidious notes to the Disney creative team are played over part of the end credits, proving how well director John Lee Hancock and his own team brought this story to life.

Rating: 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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