' ' Cinema Romantico: Saving Mr. Banks

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

Of the many common movie fan phrases, the one that perhaps drives me most batty is this: “It’s a just movie.” (Imagine Nick shuddering like Burl Ives’ snowman at the sight of The Abominable Snowman). Such a phrase does not merely discount the hundreds upon hundreds of names typically displayed in a film’s closing credits, but also slights the intent of the filmmaker and/or writer. One scene in the just released “Saving Mr. Banks” communicates the latter to perfection. Author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is at the premiere of the film based on her famed book, “Mary Poppins”, and as it unfolds we can see her see her own life literally flickering on the screen in front of her eyes. It’s not just a movie, as Thompson’s exemplary acting demonstrates. Rather her book which became this movie was her character’s opportunity to – paraphrasing “Atonement” – give her family happiness.

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), proprietor of the Magic Kingdom, shepherd of a grand movie studio, had long yearned to transform Travers’ beloved character “Mary Poppins” into a big screen extravaganza. Alas, Travers, presented as an idealistic shrew, has no interest in an animated Poppins nor in Poppins singing a medley with Mickey and Goofy. But with money tight and no new income, she is forced to reconsider, and flies to La La Land, much to her vocal chagrin, to be wooed. It doesn’t start out so well. Her hotel room is adorned with stuffed toys she stuffs into a closet and the troika of screen and songwriters interpreting her work leave her cordially furious. At every song and dance for which she does not care, at every suggestion (threat) of dancing penguins, she threatens to withhold the rights, and Disney and Co. freak out.

As Disney, Hanks is really something else. He is a showman who wields his charming personality as a means to get what he wants, and he always get what he wants. “She wants to know why Mr. Banks has a mustache?” his secretary wonders on behalf of Mrs. Travers. “Because I asked for it,” replies Disney, and that is the end of the conversation. He is baffled by Travers’ antagonism, partly because he’s unused to it, partly because her demands seem so superfluous. Ah, but he’s shrewd, awful shrewd – how else does one create an empire? – and though it takes time he is able to deduce the necessary avenue to garnering the rights. And while it is never not calculating, Hanks still conveys his character’s true love for the material itself, a showman and a businessman rolled up into one. What did Capt. Jack Sparrow say? Ah yes. “It’s remarkable how often those two traits coincide.”

Thompson is his equal, delivering her countless acerbic witticisms (her recitation of a famous Friedrich Shiller quote, and Hanks’ subsequent reaction, is priceless) with relish, offering gleeful unimpressed faces right and left. That she is not a cartoon villain but understandably protective is a testament to both Thompson and to the film’s parallel narrative. As Disney and the latter day Travers duke it out, the film continuously flashes back to Travers’ childhood in Australia, where she goes by her real name of Helen Goff, a precocious young girl with a close, meaningful relationship to her banking father – her father named, ahem, Travers (Colin Farrell).

I will fully admit my hesitation at the outset of this storyline, what with its emotionally-manipulative music and readymade platitudes. Yet that set-up gives the downward turn of the storyline, of Helen’s father's spiral into drunkenness and illness, such a bitter, beautiful irony. Their rapport seems so pure in the face of a moneygrubbing world with which Travers can’t quite square, and its side-by-side placement with the fight for the "Mary Poppins" rights illuminates how much her father meant and how she wrote the story for him. And that’s why “Saving Mr. Banks” goes to show that a movie is often is never just a movie.

Don’t misunderstand, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a movie, packed with tear-jerking monologues and a handsome visual sheen that illuminates the whole film into Disney’s Back Lot Of Eden. And, of course, there are dancing penguins. It somewhat harkens back to "Shakespeare In Love", simplifying matters that are undoubtedly more complicated so the audience eats them up like Mickey Mouse pancakes rather than hardtack. But those unabashed old Hollywood flourishes do not undermine the Father & Daughter heart of the film.

The most moving sequence in its two hours is Travers confessing that he and his daughter share a Celtic soul, and that those souls know this world is an illusion. "As long as they hold that thought," he says, "they can't break us. Can't make us endure their reality." Oh, perhaps that is mere movie psychology too, but perhaps not.

"Saving Mr. Banks" might have us believe that Walt Disney Knew Best and P.L. Travers' stone cold facade eventually crumbled in the face of The Happiest Place On Earth. But Emma Thompson, performer extraordinaire, might have us believe that her Celtic soul knows The Happiest Place On Earth is an illusion. And as long as she holds that thought, whether giving up the rights to "Mary Poppins" or not, Walt Disney and Disneyland can't break her. Can't make her endure their "reality".


Candice Frederick said...

yeah...it was quite disney and rosy, a bit too much so at times for me. but i liked the flashbacks scenes. i wanted more of them. it offered some much needed layers to the story. lol i do catch myself sometimes saying "it's just a movie," when people get worked up about it sometimes. but i totally get your point of view.

Nick Prigge said...

Glad to hear you liked the flashback scenes. That seems to be a sticking point with a lot of people, but that really was my favorite part of the film - the way it mirrored the present.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic review, as always. I have to confess that I hadn't seen Mary Poppins before I saw this but really, it's not so much about the making of the film (which it was, but not THE main point of the film). I was quite taken by the father/daughter relationship which was beautifully-portrayed here. I had no idea Travers' had such a dark past and one she still couldn't shake. The exchange between Travers and Ralph the limo driver is also a highlight, more so than all those scenes w/ Mr. Disney.

– ruth

Cleo Rogers said...

A surprisingly apologetic celebration of Papa Walt and the herculean effort required to bring Mary Poppins to screen.
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