Celebration of Creation in Warm ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

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CHICAGO – The world of creation, and the imagination behind it, gets an honorable and elegantly performed treatment in the fascinating “Saving Mr. Banks.” What seems like a “making of” film about the legendary “Mary Poppins,” becomes much more rich in symbolism and consideration.

The story of the meeting between “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney – played with precise grandfatherly charm by Tom Hanks – is really a tale of how individuals have to overcome their circumstances, yet are haunted by them still. In Travers case, it is a harsh childhood on the vast plains of Australia, and in Disney’s formative years it is the scratch-for-survival lower middle class at the dawn of the 20th Century Midwest. Both situations informed their creative souls, tempered by the realities of their own ambitions and the ambitions of the world that absorbed their creativity. The film celebrates it all in a based-on-truth fantasy about denial, loneliness, determination and yes, magic.

P.L Travers (Emma Thompson), the London-based author of the “Mary Poppins” series of books, is broke. Her agent reminds her that Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has had an offer on the table for 20 years to convert her book into a Disney film. With almost bitter resignation, the author takes the big plane over the pond in 1961 and arrives in Mad-Men era Los Angeles, determined to have final script approval over her vision of Mary Poppins.

Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) Visit Disneyland in ‘Saving Mr. Banks’
Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Meanwhile, Walt’s merry band of moviemakers, “Poppins” screenwriter Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the song composing team of the Sherman Brothers – Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) – are charged with the task of convincing the uptight Travers that adding tunes and a lighter touch will make Mary Poppins a character for the ages. As Travers revolts, she also flashes back to herself as a child (Anna Rose Buckley) in Australia, and an alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) that has informed her spirit forever.

This is about Travers and Walt Disney, two different creators going through entertainment cultures that demanded different things from their creations. And it is about their conditions as early 20th Century children, an era in which childhood was much shorter, and based on the environment and economic realities of the families they were born into. There is the intriguing symbolism in the film, Travers as a British subject – trying to suppress her Australian roots – and Walt Disney, American, masking his youthful poverty behind a fantasy empire based on a cartoon mouse. Together they represent the dream of an era of rapid change, when published books and movies that could take a reader and viewer to another universe, and at the same time allow a prim author’s character and a skinny cartoon artist to become legends.

The veteran actors Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are perfect in handling the subtleties of the roles, Hanks especially is hugely charming as the larger-than-life Walt. There are walls and bridges between the two, and they interact with each other cognizant of the existence of those barriers and non-barriers. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that Disney and Travers “characters” are themselves creations of a parallel reality – one where we hope that Walt Disney could comfort a grieving little girl who has grown up to become a famous yet lonely writer.

The supporting cast is also essential, most notably Paul Giamatti as Traver’s humanizing driver (more symbolism?) and the three Disney employees played by Whitford, Schwartzman and Novak. Giamatti takes a trifle of a role and adds the proper context, while the three men in the composing room express the joy of making a new Disney opus, albeit it with a difficult angel looking over their shoulders. Jason Schwartzman especially stood out, as he navigated the Sherman brother’s incredible soundtrack into Traver’s heart.

B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman
The Sherman Brothers: Richard (B.J. Novak) and Robert (Jason Schwartzman) in ‘Saving Mr. Banks’
Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures

The Australian flashbacks were a bit overlong, but had a purpose in understanding the 1960s events. Colin Farrell was interesting as Papa Travers (his first name), but the whole of those sequences seemed to interrupt the more absorbing making-of “Poppins” story. The production design is precise, if only Don Draper would have made a cameo, it might have been perfect. And there is no depiction of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke – who played the main characters in the finished “Mary Poppins” – save for a brief glance at the premiere. This is Travers and Disney’s story, their collaboration.

This film belongs on the shelf next to the Travers books and the “Mary Poppins” movie, as only to understand that creative magic is reliant on the relationships between fellow travelers – whether it be family, friends, co-workers, or the unlikely pairing between a woman who birthed an unforgettable nanny and a man who made a mouse into an empire.

’Saving Mr. Banks’ has a limited release on December 13th, and opens everywhere on December 20th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths and Anna Rose Buckley. Screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2013 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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