Monday, 6 January 2014
FILM REVIEW: SAVING MR. BANKS
Walt Disney Studios Films
In 1934, Australian-born author, P.L. Travers wrote the first in a series of children's book about the magical nanny, Mary Poppins. And for the next 20 years, House of Mouse mogul, Walt Disney, after a promise made to his daughters, pursued the author for the film rights. It wasn't until 1961, and faced with financial problems, that Travers begrudgingly agreed to travel to Los Angeles and meet with Disney to discuss a possible film version of her beloved book.
But the only thing tighter than Travers' perm was her grip on Mary Poppins. The author (Emma Thompson) had continually resisted the advances of Walt Disney's purchase of her children's tale of the au pair with a talking umbrella who arrived on the East wind (you can understand Disney's attraction) lest a film version include singing, dancing and -- heavens to Mergatroid! -- animation. Travers wasn't about to sign over her creation, or creative control, without a fight.
We know who won that battle in the end -- Walt Disney didn't get rich by taking no for an answer or by placing artistic integrity above commercial gain -- but Saving Mr. Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock (2009's The Blind Side) and penned by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, would have you believe that Travers' capitulation to Disney's demands was for the better.
Thus we get scenes of Poppins pre-production (which Travers insists be recorded) where screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman), roll their eyes and bite their tongues at every one of Travers' objections to grammar, set design, character facial hair, and the invention of words for songs. It's the uptight Brit versus the fun Americans, and you just know who you're supposed to root for.
We're also treated to flashbacks of the author's childhood in Queensland (though not shot in Australia), where her banker father (a fine Colin Farrell) instilled in the young lass (played by young Aussie, Annie Rose Buckley) the power of imagination. His drunkenness and irresponsibility also left Travers with daddy issues, or at least according to Saving Mr. Banks; the title referring to both the patriarch in her book and the past which haunts the author. The best exorcism, according to Walt? Letting go.
The 1964 film version of Mary Poppins has since become a family classic; winning 5 Oscars from 13 nominations, and, at the time, Disney's highest grosser. And as the old adage goes, history is written by the victors: any film about Walt Disney, produced and distributed by Walt Disney Studios, is bound to be whitewashed. Disney himself is but a bit player here (making absurd those who believed Hanks, admittedly fine, was a slam dunk for an Oscar nomination), and most of Travers' bio (bisexual, adopted son, spiritualist) have been excised completely.
Still, Emma Thompson is always a welcome screen presence. She doesn't make Travers likeable as such but she does well to keep her stubbornness, unfiltered honesty and "English-ness" from being a one-note bore (a snippet of voice recording in the closing credits reveals that the real P.L. Travers was indeed a stickler for detail with the voice of a patrician English school ma'am). Just as Travers does the large plush Mickey Mouse doll sent to her hotel suite, you begrudgingly embrace this prickly woman.
There's no denying that Saving Mr. Banks is, on one level, a very entertaining film, and I'll admit that even I was not immune to some of its humour and charm. The supporting cast, which also includes a sunny Paul Giamatti as Travers' limo driver, are all good. But there's an underlying insidiousness to the film: a suggestion that the proof is in the final pudding (though I've never actually watched Mary Poppins; certainly not from beginning to end) and that the ends justify the means.
Of course, filmmaking has always been about the marriage between commerce and art, symbolised here (unintentionally, I'm sure) when Travers, attending the L.A. premiere of Mary Poppins (which Disney did not invite her to), is escorted down the aisle of the red carpet by a certain anthropomorphized rodent, as though on their way to consecrate their unholy union.
If anything, Saving Mr. Banks is the story of how an entertainment corporation co-opted and corrupted one artist's vision, and that's a jagged little pill which requires more than a spoonful of sugar to help it go down.