Saving Mr. Banks

Posted by Michael Parsons on December 13, 2013 in / No Comments


One problem with “Saving Mr. Banks”, which tells the story of Mary Poppins’ journey from book to big screen and more specifically the volatile relationship between Walt Disney and British author P.L. Travers during her two weeks at the studio negotiating the script in 1961, is the fact that it’s a Disney production. I have no problem with Disney; in fact, the animated feature “Frozen” was one of my favorite films of the year. I’ll even be taking my daughter down to Disney World just as soon as she’s old enough to endure the sensory overload. But expecting anything different than a saintly, uncomplicated version of Walt Disney, who’s played in the film by Tom Hanks, would simply be unrealistic. It’s a Disney picture.

110083_galHanks, who does the stand-up guy better than just about anybody I can think of, portrays the media mogul as I’m sure many people imagined him (including me); kind, comforting, generous and righteous. While that may all be an accurate assessment of the man to some degree, it certainly can’t be a complete one; there’s not a moment in “Saving Mr. Banks” in which the character is forced to abandon his avuncular charms to get what he wants. Even when he’s being assertive, he’s a such a sweetheart that you want to give him a hug and then sing a duet.

So you might wonder how he manages to get his way with the rigid, America-hating P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), who seems impervious to Disney’s magic fairy dust. She’s assertive, too, but is established mainly as an insufferable pain in the ass, making ridiculous demands if only to make things more difficult for others. She pays very few people the common courtesy of saying “hello” or “thank you” and would sooner throw pears into the pool at her hotel than simply drop them in the trash (more on that later).  The only person she seems to tolerate is a good-natured chauffeur (played by Paul Giamatti), probably because in turn, he’s the only one who can tolerate her.

For a good portion of the film, Travers, who only entertains the idea of selling “Poppins” because she’s faced with imminent bankruptcy (having not written a book in some time) and Disney, who’s determined to fulfill a promise that he’d made to his daughters some twenty years earlier, are like oil and water. The buttoned-up, intellectual Brit (who repeatedly insists on being addressed as Mrs. Travers and makes abundantly clear her disgust with Los Angeles, the theme park and just about everything down to actor Dick Van Dyke  – did I mention that she hates Americans?), and the easy-going, larger-than-life, mustached father of Mickey Mouse (who seems unrealistically patient), squabble over the iconic nanny as Disney attempts to secure the rights to “Mary Poppins” pending Travers’ approval of the script. At first, she refuses to let him make a musical out of her precious book, and absolutely no animation, she stipulates inflexibly (of course, if you’ve seen “Mary Poppins”, you know how that turned out). He occasionally makes some pretty vanilla remarks about her (“The woman’s a conundrum!”, he laments), but it’s not quite the knock-down, drag-out that it might have been in reality.

111511_galBut a rather heartbreaking story emerges via Travers’ intermittent memories, and from it, a terrific performance by Thompson, who we eventually realize is doing something brilliantly subtle with her character amidst her quarrelsome moments. She recalls her days in Australia, where her well-intentioned father (Colin Farrell, giving an engaging performance as usual) works as a bank manager and struggles with alcoholism. As her memories reveal more about her troubled childhood and the origin of “Mary Poppins” begins to unfold, as well as the relevance of the book’s patriarch Mr. Banks, so does a surprisingly touching movie. We then learn why she’s so protective of her creation, and it changes the tone of the film almost entirely (we even find out why she hates pears so much). Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) does a great job of intertwining the two timelines and gives deep meaning to a character who started off looking like nothing more than an ugly stereotype. Much of the film seems to be playing it safe, like the decision to put  two-time Oscar winner Hanks in the role of Walt Disney, because he’s almost impossible not to like, but it turns out to be a  surprisingly relatable tale, despite its glossy appearance. Are these incarnations of Travers and Disney oversimplified? Undoubtedly. “Saving Mr. Banks” works nonetheless, and your next viewing of “Mary Poppins”, which I revisited immediately after watching this film, might gain some perspective from it.
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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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