Sunday, 22 December 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
Directed by John Lee Hancock; Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell

Rating: 4/5

Coming just in advance of the film’s fiftieth anniversary is the story behind one of Walt Disney’s most beloved pictures, Mary Poppins (1964), and negotiations between Disney and the author of the original books, P. L. Travers.

If history is written by the victors, then there’s bound to be bias when the Disney Company tells a tale surrounding their beloved Uncle Walt, but the film portrays the powerful personalities of Travers and Disney as equal in strength and single mindedness. Ultimately, both are flawed.

Tom Hanks has had a good year, appearing recently in the critically acclaimed Captain Phillips. As Walt Disney, he appeals to Travers with a promise he made to his daughters: that he would adapt their favourite book for the silver screen. He claims Travers’ creations are as much his family as hers, but at heart, he is a shrewd businessman, and a man who is absolutely used to getting what he wants.

Travers (Emma Thompson, who has experience starring as her own magical governess in Nanny McPhee) views the art of film and the fantasies of Disney with utter contempt, and has spent twenty years vehemently denying him the rights to her work. But financial constraints force her hand and she agrees to fly to California, where pre-production is already well underway, to finally hammer out a compromise.

While the clash of two big characters is enough for a solid story, Saving Mr. Banks is an ensemble piece. The cast rounded out with Travers’ good natured chauffer Ralph (Paul Giamatti) providing her introduction to American culture, and Disney’s team: scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and songwriters Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B. J. Novak).

Much of the humour in the film comes from Travers’ altercations with DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers as they edit the script and score. Travers’ is infinitely insufferable, rejecting their suggestions outright, frowning in disapproval at their songs, and chiding them for lack of manners when they attempt an informal atmosphere.

One stipulation she makes is to record all of their meetings. These were used extensively as source material by the film makers and an authentic excerpt from one of these tapes which plays over the end credits reveals just how accurate Thompsons’s portrayal is – Travers really was that overbearing.

As a period piece, the film indulges in the meticulously portrayed eras of early ‘60s Hollywood, and turn of the century Australia. Here, flashbacks to Travers’ youth and her father (Colin Farell), a struggling alcoholic bank manager, reveal the reasons behind her haughty demeanour, and the inspirations for her novels. With Mary Poppins, she gave the Banks’ family a redemption that her own life never had.

The film is unashamedly saccharine at times. Travers is not alone: every character, from Ralph to Robert Sherman to Disney himself, has a tale of hardship to tug at the heartstrings. The audience is played like a fiddle by director John Lee Hancock, who knows a little about strung out sentimentality from his previous film, The Blind Side (2009). The film is long, clocking in at just over two hours, but is well paced, and does not feel especially bloated.

Naturally, a certain amount of knowledge and appreciation for Mary Poppins is required for this film to mean anything. While I am no Travers biographer, I’m aware that some elements of her personal life have been streamlined, or indeed omitted, to make them more cinematic.

The bare bones are the truth, and are indeed a powerful story. The biggest difference is that although she allowed it to be filmed, Travers never came around, and hated the Disney film for the rest of her life.

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