Wednesday, December 25, 2013

In Which I Review Saving Mr. Banks

Just a spoonful of sugar...

Iconic. That's the first word that comes to mind when I think of Mary Poppins. The 1964 Disney movie invokes a sort of a painful nostalgia for my lost childhood. I don't know exactly when I first saw the movie, but I know I was young, somewhere between five and seven. My mom rented the movie at the library, had my aunt rip a version of it onto a VHS that also held such other classics like the Wizard of Oz, The Sword in the Stone, and Robin Hood. My copy still exists, buried in the movie closet somewhere, grainy and patchy, worn out after multiple views. It should come as no surprise that the Disney corporation and I have a deep history. A lover of all things magical, Mary Poppins was enchanting. The songs, the message, the character herself--at once caustic and encouraging--were endearing. It has come down through the ages as one of the great classics. When this movie was announced, I was instantly intrigued. Despite being a lover of the film, I've never read the book upon which it is based. I knew very little of the somewhat competitive history between Walt Disney and P.L Travers, author and creator of Mary Poppins. But the trailer to the film made the story seem as special as the final Disney product. 

Fair warning: this movie is going to get what might be termed a rave review. It was, as Mary Poppins would say, practically perfect in every way. How could it not be with powerhouse actors Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P.L Travers, receptively? Hanks is exuberant and friendly, insisting that he be on a first name basis with everyone, filling hotel rooms with Disney memorabilia, and personally showing Travers around "the happiest place on earth." Thompson is what I like to call a quiet actress; her emotions in this film come across in eye twitches, furrowed brows and stuttering speeches that punctuated her rather stiff upper lip demeanor. Closed up and closed off, Travers wants nothing to do with Walt Disney and his candy cotton, multi-billion dollar enterprise that takes works of respected authors and turns them into animated cartoons for the masses. I found myself actually wondering how many authors felt the same as the real life Travers in their own dealings with Disney. Your life blood poured across pages, and if you're lucky to have Disney take an interest, chances are his vision is the one that lasts and most people will remember. Because of this possessive stance on her work, Travers is eager to make Disney disappoint her--with her long list of demands such as no animation and no signing (both of which end up being in the film anyway)--so that she can go back to England, to her memories, her pain and her loss.

You see, Mary Poppins (the book) is based in more than a large part on Travers own life. Part of this film was a flashback to 1904 Australia, out in a long forgotten town on a dilapidated farm where a young Helen Goff (Travers) lives with her kindly but alcoholic father and her severely depressed mother. Helen is the apple of her father's eye and all she wants is to be like him: adventurous, sweet, imaginative. But a dark cloud hangs over her father and what might seem like a simple but picturesque life--the bottle. Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) is trying to be respectable. He has a job, a wife, three lovely children but he is unable to escape his sickness of drink. When her father becomes unable to live without the drink and falls into a deep sickness and Helen's mother is overwhelmed by the sadness of it all (she tries to drown herself at one point), Helen's aunt comes to stay. And the aunt is the basis for Mary Poppins--heels at a smart forty-five degree angle, bottomless carpet bag, bouffant and all. Sometimes when movies are tying one person to two places it can feel disjointed and can confuse the audience, but in this case the flashbacks were well timed and thought out. For example in the present day, Travers demands that there be no red in the film and suddenly we are taken back to the Australian farm where a red dress flaps on a clothes line and Helen's mother discovers a bottle of whiskey in her husband's coat, one of the first signs that not everything is right in the Goff household. I have to give credit to both Farrell and the young actress who played Helen, Annie Rose Buckley. The bond between the two was very real and emotional. Together they managed to convey a father and daughter relationship that obviously followed Travers her whole life. I won't spoil the plot of the flashback, but suffice to say that in her books Mary Poppins shows up to--yes--save Mr. Banks, not the children. In her works, Travers tries to redeem her father, to make the curmudgeonly banker into a loving father who would never leave his children, despite "not being able to see beyond the end of their nose."

The true highlight of the film, though, is the relationship that grows between Walt and Pamela--pardon me, Mrs. Travers. Their initial meeting is icy and brief in which Travers refuses to give Walt the rights to her book, insisting that these characters are family to her, which they are, as we see in the flashbacks. Travers agrees to stay on and see what Walt has in mind, so long as everything is recorded for her peace of mind--which is how this movie was even able to be made. Travers, to be blunt, hates everything screenwriter DaGradi and composers/lyricists Robert and Richard Sherman have come up with. It's all bright pink and tinged with happy feelings instead of practicality, which is what Mary Poppins is supposed to inspire. There are made up words and songs and dancing penguins (side note: the dancing penguins are one of my favorite scenes in the eventual movie). Travers wants everything to be as she remembers in her childhood, not the sugary sweet concoction Disney has in mind. It is deeply personal to her and gradually, over time, Disney begins to uncover why. In the standout scene of the film, Disney and Travers find themselves in her London apartment, bearing their souls. Both had fathers who were loving and wonderful but could be cruel and harsh; both know how unfair the world can be. The scene required several hankies from yours truly.

The majority of the scenes in the film are Travers and Disney sitting in a room with screenwriter and songwriters where the audience is treated to the jingles and jangles that would eventually make their way into Disney's iconic film (almost all of them were loathed by Travers). Thompson manages to be both close to insufferable but somehow comedic and Britishly dry as she dismisses the hard work of the men in the room as fluff and stuff. Each witty pun lands with perfect precision and makes you laugh but also makes you realize that you've been insulted. She conveys both disdain and sadness in her looks as the musical numbers invoke flashbacks to her life as Helen Goff. Hanks somehow stays in stride with her as he shows Disney's infinite patience and jolly good nature, reminding us all of how large a part in our real lives this man played. References to the final movie product were everywhere--from Travers asking for a spoonful of sugar in her tea to the direction of the wind to names of characters appearing in the flashbacks and (as a surprise treat to lovers of the Disney film) scenes from the movie shown at the end. It's a shining happy movie about redemption but with a dark under tow about how life is sometimes very unfair and those scars on our hearts never go away, not fully. Which, I think, might have been Walt's whole mission statement.

Overall Grade: A

Go see it. Right now. It was the perfect Christmas movie, without actually being about Christmas.

The movie has a lot of revolving door characters who shine brightly, though nowhere as luminous as Hanks and Thompson. And while I think some more bitter critics might claim that this film is an exercise in Disney re-promoting itself by trotting out an absolute staple and classic of its company name, it is nevertheless endearing and sweet and uplifting. And as a lover of all things Disney, I didn't find it pompous or greedy. I found it nostalgic and wholly wonderful.

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