Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Saving Mr. Banks"

 4.5 / 5 

When a famous person commissions his or her portrait, the final work is hardly expected to be objective; it will meet the specific requirements of the subject, and the last thing anyone can rightfully expect is that genuine art will result.

Yet, it has happened in the art world, so why not the cinematic world?  The Walt Disney Company could have created a feature-length film about the making of Mary Poppins to commemorate the musical's 50th anniversary, but instead took a curious route, opting for a highly fictionalized account of the struggle between Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers to bring her books to the screen.

Somewhere in the process, amid the corporate shoulder-slapping over what a brilliant marketing move this would be, director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith delivered a terrifically entertaining film that comes as close as any mainstream movie I've ever seen to capturing the way storytelling is a highly personal process, one whose mysteries are locked away within the mind of one single writer.

Ask any writer, painter, composer or actor to explain why certain scenes exist, or how the inspiration came for a particular work, and you'll either be met with a cold, icy stare that implies you could not possibly understand or, on the other end, you'll be subjected to long historical ramblings about childhood and pain.

Saving Mr. Banks gets both of them, though the latter are not nearly as numerous as the former, and they're all delivered by two transcendent actors, Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.

Keep in mind, this is a movie made by the company Walt Disney created, so there's little reason to suspect Walt will be treated as a real-life human being -- but indeed he is.  Argumentative, passionate about his beliefs and his work, and doggedly determined to secure the rights to Mary Poppins from the ardently opposed Mrs. Travers. (There's good reason for her oft-stated insistence that she be known as Mrs. Travers, as the film will explain.)

But Mrs. Travers is at the end of her financial rope.  Book sales have dried up, along with the corresponding residual payments, and losing her beloved house would be the least of her concerns.

Saving Mr. Banks picks up when Mrs. Travers agrees to go on an "exploratory trip" to Los Angeles to meet Disney and his film's songwriters and screenwriter.  They're ill-prepared for the experience.

What they find in Mrs. Travers is a woman who cannot abide anything about moviemaking, Los Angeles or, frankly, life in general.  And here is where the genius of the script for Saving Mr. Banks kicks in: Through her trip, and with the aid of sun-dappled flashbacks to her life as a girl in Australia, Mrs. Travers comes to a surprising and unnerving realization:

She has become exactly the sort of inflexible, intransigent, fussy adult she never imagined herself becoming.

As for the Disney camp, they simply have work to do -- there's a lot of money already riding on Mary Poppins, and there's one big problem: Mrs. Travers hasn't signed over the rights to the film.

Early scenes between Mrs. Travers and writer Don DaGradi and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) are a delight to watch as every notion they've ever held about the allure of filmmaking and the beautiful sunshine of Hollywood are laid to utter waste through a few well-chosen words and dismissals.

These are the comic gems that have ben lifted for the film's lighthearted trailer, but the rather large surprise of the film itself is discovering why Mrs. Travers is so resistant.  "These characters are family to me," and through the liberal use of those flashbacks -- often viewed as a "crutch" for some films, but genuinely worthwhile here -- the audience begins to understand some of Mrs. Travers views quite intimately.

And so does Walt Disney.  Just when he thinks he's got her, she relents and hops on the next plane back to London, more certain than ever that she will never let Disney and his "money-printing machine" get their hands on Mary Poppins.

A long, crucial, quiet scene between Disney and Travers in the sitting room of her London home is the clincher, as Disney explains why they may have more in common than the stuffy, angry British author has ever expected.

In this scene, and others with Mrs. Travers, the Sherman Bros. and DaGradi going through the script line by line, something astonishing happens in Saving Mr. Banks -- it becomes one of the most compelling explorations of the creative process that I've ever seen.  Mrs. Travers thinks back to the childhood scenes that inspired her work, remembers the impact they had on her then -- and still do, more than a half-century later -- and considers how they might relate to what she wrote.

Saving Mr. Banks seems like the story of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers -- but, then, Mary Poppins to many viewers seems like the story of Jane and Michael going on grand adventures with a flying nanny. There's more happening here, and it's an enormous credit to the writers, the director and the actors that they have been able to find the emotional core of this story.

In fact, although Saving Mr. Banks is a story about Hollywood and Walt Disney, it is really about the awful middle-aged realization that we have allowed our youthful ambitions of love, simple achievement and happiness to be overwhelmed by the sadly adult expediencies of money, success and approval.

Saving Mr. Banks is anchored by the truly astonishing, memorable, practically perfect performance by Emma Thompson as Mrs. Travers.  Say all you will about the technical accomplishments of today's actors, Thompson does something deceptively simple here: She creates a fully realized character, one whose silly quirks become less silly and more understandable as time goes on, and the final shot of her is cathartic indeed: Whether it came out exactly the way she wanted it or not, she finally got Disney to make a movie she could approve of -- and enjoy.

Although Hanks is relegated to a bit of a supporting-actor role, he achieves something pretty remarkable, as well, by taking a well-known historical figure, one who has achieved iconic status, and finding warmth, humanity and complexity in him.

That it was made by The Walt Disney Company can be held against Saving Mr. Banks but, in the end, shouldn't be.  If they had intended to make a hagiography, they could have done so quite easily.  What they've made instead is a film that captures the essence of why it's so difficult to translate a novel to the screen, and what goes through the mind of a writer whose work is being analyzed.

The movie is at times brilliant in its ability to show the dichotomy between the happy world of Disney and the no-nonsense world she thought she created, and the schism could not be better showcased than by the nuanced, warm-hearted and disarmingly candid performance of Thompson.

There are cloying moments, to be sure.  There are moments of self-congratulation by the Disney team that could leave some people averse to seeing Saving Mr. Banks.  If you're one of those -- try not to be, just for two hours.  This is a film that places the cynics among us (and there are many) front and center, holds their behavior up as almost laudatory, then asks one big question:

Where did it come from?

How did you grow from being that happy child to being this bitter adult?  And would you not mind it if the world could, just for a little while, be more like what you once knew it to be?

Saving Mr. Banks loses just a little with some slightly cartoony characterizations and the overtly golden gloss it puts on most everything.  It looks at times more like a Hallmark commercial than it does a mainstream film.  But those are small qualms about a film that surprised me in the best possible way: By being a genuinely terrific movie, anchored by one of the best screen performances of the year.

It's been a remarkable year for actresses, from Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine to Sandra Bullock in Gravity, but none have done what Thompson does here: Show how a woman (any person, really) can find once again the child who still just wants to love and be loved.

Saving Mr. Banks is not, as feared, the work of the studio's marketing team to celebrate the half-century mark of Mary Poppins -- it's a fresh, lively, emotional, top-notch film all its own, one that has the added benefit of revisiting a cinematic classic and finding out just why it's so much better than you imagine it to be.  Whether you give Mary Poppins a fresh go after seeing Saving Mr. Banks is your choice -- but do see Saving Mr. Banks for one of the most refreshing and satisfying movies of the year.

It may be a work of commissioned art, but happily, it turns out to be quite a worthy artistic accomplishment unto itself.

Viewed Dec. 25, 2013 -- Laemmle NoHo 7


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