Saving Mr. Banks


The happiest place on Earth.

The happiest place on Earth.

(2013) True Life Drama (Disney) Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Kathy Baker, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Lily Bigham, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee, Rachel Griffiths, Ronan Vibert, Jerry Hauck, Laura Waddell, Fuschia Sumner, David Ross Patterson, Michelle Arthur. Directed by John Lee Hancock

There are few adults or children who aren’t at least aware of the Disney classic Mary Poppins and most of those bear at least some sort of love for the film. In the review of the film, I mentioned that there are no others that take me back to my childhood like that one and I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard. It is therefore somewhat unsettling to note that the movie nearly didn’t get made – and if author P.L. Travers who created the character had her way, it would have been a very different movie indeed.

Walt Disney (Hanks) had always been enchanted by the tale of the flying nanny and made a promise to his daughters that he would make a movie of it someday. However, getting it done was a whole other matter entirely. P.L. Travers (Thompson), the prickly author of the Mary Poppins books, was unwilling to part with her creation to Hollywood which she considered a vulgar and schmaltzy place. Her prim and proper Poppins would doubtlessly be turned into a mindless dolt or worse still, a cartoon. Travers, you see, hated cartoons.

Finally nearly broke, she at last reluctantly consented to travel to Hollywood to sign away the rights to Poppins and the Banks family which she thought of as her own family. However, she insisted on script approval and Disney in a nearly-unheard of move for him granted it. He gave the chilly Brit over to writer Don DaGradi (Whitford) and composers Richard (Schwartzman) and Robert (Novak) Sherman.

Things go rapidly downhill from there. Travers is uneasy with the idea of making Poppins a musical – “Mary Poppins doesn’t sing” she sniffs – and absolutely hates the idea of casting Dick van Dyke as ert the Chimney Sweep. She’s very uncomfortable with the Americanization of her characters and the songs – well, she hates those too.

In fact there’s very little American that she doesn’t hate from the architecture to the smell of Los Angeles which she describes to her Disney-supplied driver Ralph (Giamatti) as “sweat and exhaust” but what he describes as jasmine which pretty much sums up the difference between the characters. She hates the pastries and treats that the long-suffering production assistant Biddy (Bigham) supplies and she barges in on Disney which drives his assistant Tommie (Baker) batty.

And nothing they do makes her happy, not even a trip to Disneyland with Walt himself. Walt is at wit’s end, particularly when she announces that the color red has been banned from the film. “You’re trying to test me, aren’t you,” he murmurs quite perceptively. “You’re trying to see how far I’m willing to go.” She holds the unsigned rights over his head like a Sword of Damocles. It isn’t until she retreats back to England, furious that Walt is planning on animating the chalk drawing sequence, that he figures out what is motivating her and why she is so reluctant for the movie to proceed.

There are clues throughout, almost all of them in flashback sequences in which an 8-year-old Travers, nicknamed Ginty (Buckley) adores her banker dad (Farrell) in rural Australia in the early 20th century but watches alcohol and disappointment slowly wear him away. It is there we see the genesis of Mary Poppins and the reason that P.L. Travers is a far different woman than Helen “Ginty” Goff was meant to be.

It’s something of a miracle that this movie got made at all. Although the script was independently commissioned, what other studio other than Disney would buy it? And Disney had a tight rope to walk on the film; if Walt comes off as a saint, it smacks of self-aggrandizement but if he comes off flawed they might see their brand eroded. I think that in the end that Walt comes off here as a genuinely good man but one who was a sharp businessman and who could be equally as cold and calculating as he was warm and compassionate. Near the end of the film, Tommie asks him why Mrs. Travers was left off the invitation list for the premier of Poppins and Walt says in a somewhat cold voice that there would be interviews and press to be done and he had to protect the film. Travers had to literally ask for permission to come and she never forgave him for that, among other things.

In fact the movie seems to imply that a certain understanding and mutual affection existed between Disney and Travers and that simply wasn’t the case. She found him overbearing and thought him deceitful and refused to work with him ever again. In fact when Broadway musical producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her to do a stage version of Poppins, she outright refused but later relented with the stipulation that nobody who worked on the film be connected in any way with the musical. After Travers’ death in 1996, Mackintosh later approached Disney and got input from them.

Thompson’s name has come up in Oscar discussions and for good reason; this is one of the finest performances of a stellar career on her part. Travers is a disagreeable, cantankerous sort who insists that every script meeting be audio taped and finds reason after reason why things can’t be done. However when she allows people in, the vulnerable child emerges and we see her regrets and her pain. I certainly wouldn’t object to her getting nominated for Oscar gold and I wouldn’t be surprised either.

I read that some retired Disney sorts who actually worked on the film who saw Saving Mr. Banks were brought to tears because the details were so on-target. Certainly this was a labor of love and like most labors was a difficult and often painful one. Hancock actually plays one of the actual audio tapes of one of the initial script sessions over the end credits so you get a real idea of how the real Mrs. Travers was (the same session is recreated in the film) and if anything, they softened her image from reality somewhat.

Disney, like most men who accomplish the sort of success that he did in life, is either sanctified or demonized depending on the nature of the person making the opinion. The real Walt Disney lay somewhere in between the two extremes. I think that this is as close a glimpse as we’re likely to get at the real Walt and while I tend to think that this is a fictionalized account of the real events surrounding the making of Mary Poppins, it is nonetheless entertaining and engrossing and one of the year’s best films.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by nearly all of the cast. A lovely walk down Memory Lane.

REASONS TO STAY: Diverges from fact a few times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the themes may be a bit too intense for children. There are also some unpleasant images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hanks, who plays Walt Disney, is in fact a distant cousin of the studio chief.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Blood Creek

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Mary Poppins


Mary Poppins

Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke discover you just can't find good help anymore.

(Disney) Julie Andrews, Dick van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynnis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Else Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell, Arthur Malet. Directed by Robert Stevenson

Some movies transcend their original material. Very few remember the children’s stories of P.L. Travers but nearly everyone has seen and/or loves the Disney movie version.

The Banks children Jane (Dotrice) and Michael (Garber) have gone through nannies like Bill Cosby has gone through sweaters. Their father (Tomlinson) spends most of his day working at the bank and when he is home, he expects it to be run like a proper British household. His wife (Johns) is far too busy with the women’s suffragette movement to really spend time with her children. When they drive the latest nanny out, it’s the last straw. Mr. Banks determines to oversee the recruitment of a proper nanny himself.

The children have ideas of their own. They write a letter with the qualifications that they would like, which their father pooh-poohs. However, strangely enough, the torn-up letter of the children makes its way to the world’s most famous nanny; the estimable Mary Poppins (Andrews) herself. When a stiff British breeze blows the other applicants away, Mary Poppins floats in on the Eastern wind and gets the position.

She then proceeds to take her charges through a series of wonderful adventures through chalk drawings, on the rooftops and around London. She is assisted by her friend Bert (van Dyke), a jack of all trades who is best known as a chimney sweep. All of these are set to the most marvelous musical score ever set to a children’s film. And when the broken family is at last mended, Mary Poppins quietly sails away on the East wind that brought her to Cherry Tree Lane.

My wife recently posted on her Facebook status a query about a film that reminds her most of her childhood. I thought and thought and thought about it and came up with this one. If you define childhood as the ages before the affectations and cynicism of the teenage years set in, then this is the movie that defines my pre-teen years most closely.

Julie Andrews gave a career-establishing performance and along with her role as Maria in The Sound of Music (a role she attained due directly to her work here) is the one she is most closely identified with. Much to the distress of P.L. Travers, the Disney brain trust made Poppins more cheery, less cold than the one in the book. Andrews made her fresh and sweet, to go with the prim and proper veneer she affected. It would give Andrews the Best Actress Oscar at the 1965 Academy Awards.

No less outstanding is van Dyke as Bert the chimney sweep. His singing and dancing would establish him a one of Hollywood’s leading actors for the era and elevate him from the television fame which he then enjoyed. Van Dyke holds his own with some of the more intimidating actors of the era, including Wynn as the contagiously jolly Uncle Albert.

The music however is particularly outstanding and nearly everyone has a song that is close to their hearts from this film, from “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” to “Stay Awake” to the classic “A Spoonful of Sugar.” My own personal favorite is “Feed the Birds,” something I have in common with Walt Disney himself. I used to have an album with some of the music from Mary Poppins and I feel oddly comforted whenever I hear this song; I used to play it as a child when I was troubled and would feel immediately better. I think a lot of children use music that way.

Simply put, this is one of the all-time classics, one which in many ways doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves. It is symbolic of childhood and families, of the wonder and magic that is all around us and that we can rediscover if only we choose to. Children have no need to – they know it’s there, they live with it every day. How I envy them that.

So there you have it. The movie that most brings my childhood back to me is this one. I suspect that I’m not alone in that regard. So go ahead, whip out the disk or rent it (it’s available nearly everywhere and it’s almost always in stock) and settle in for two hours of childhood reclamation. It will do your soul good.

And feel free to add your voice to the discussion. Is there a particular movie that brings back memories of your childhood? Post it in the comments!

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful music, great performances, an imaginative premise and simply put, makes you feel like a kid again regardless of how old you are.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ve lost contact with the child inside you.

FAMILY VALUES: This family classic is suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only movie produced by Walt Disney himself to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The most recent 45th Anniversary edition comes loaded with special features, included several related to the recent Broadway production based on the film. There’s a feature on composer Richard Sherman, as well as a deleted song set to storyboards for the scene, and a short film based on a Mary Poppins story by P.L. Travers.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Dragonball: Evolution