Friday, January 3, 2014

The Final Cut Is The Deepest

Reel To Reel: Saving Mr. Banks

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell
Rated: PG-13 (but really could be a simple PG)
Red Flags: A couple of brief, fleeting swear words; intense depictions of alcoholism and a near-suicide (which falls into that hideous MPAA catch-all of "thematic elements and some disturbing images" -- anything intensely thematic is not going to get by with a simple PG in the ratings system we're working with)

As I watched Emma Thompson's portrayal of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, I could not fathom how such a stiffly tart-tongued English author could create one of the most endearing characters of children's literature. In 1961, Travers reluctantly sold Walt Disney the film rights to Poppins on the condition she have script approval, and Saving Mr. Banks is the story of the famous nanny's transition from page to screen.

We meet Travers as a struggling author, goaded by her agent into flying to Hollywood to meet with Walt Disney and the picture's writers and composers. She is simply incorrigible, to use a proper English term, playing Travers with unforgiving starchiness. Along the way, we see flashbacks of the author's childhood in Australia, where her imagination blossoms in the shadow of an alcoholic banker father (Farrell), the same one who feeds the playful fantasies that would become the raw material for her novels.

Walt Disney (Hanks) is the tenacious yet folksy studio mogul who's been politely pestering Travers for years to let him make a Poppins film. Yet the author brushes his charm aside, insistent on having things her way. Having no love for Disney's films, his empire, and particularly his animation, she clutches the paperwork for the film rights like bait in front of him, unsigned until such time as she is satisfied, which looks like an impossible feat. Hanks has Disney's light Missouri drawl and mustache, but not much else. While he turns in an excellent performance, as we've come to expect from him in so many roles, he seems more like Tom Hanks doing a Walt Disney imitation than Disney himself.

The film's screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and musical composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak) find themselves confused and frustrated over Travers' script demands, correcting and objecting to the smallest script details, including whether Mr. Banks -- the patriarch from the Poppins' books -- should have a mustache. Her version of Poppins is devoid of any screen magic, something blandly British and grounded in reality. And yet Travers leaves them with enough for a coherent script and songbook, even as she objects to her novel becoming a musical. Just when the creative team is making a heartening breakthrough, hope sinks when Travers learns how Disney wants to make the film's penguins dance.

Saving Mr. Banks is a Cliffs' Notes version of a complicated and tortuous relationship between Disney and Travers. It leaves us with a Hollywood ending and hints at a Hollywood epiphany. In reality, the relationship between the two soured after Mary Poppins' release. The mogul refused to make changes to the film requested by Travers immediately after the Hollywood premiere. Travers never forgave Disney for that. Decades later, she refused to let the studio have any part in a stage version, even though it used several of the film's songs. Disney used the enormous profits from the movie to bankroll Walt Disney World in Florida, although he died in 1966, not long before construction began. Travers passed away in 1996 without allowing another Poppins film to be made from her numerous writings. She had script approval to the end.

Be sure to stay through the credits of this film to hear the real P.L. Travers working on the script. Also, the film's PG-13 rating is an exaggeration. It's fine for children 10 years and up. Disney has released films with scarier scenes -- excuse me, "thematic elements" -- that got softer ratings than this.

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