Thursday, December 12, 2013

Spoonfuls of Sugar: SAVING MR. BANKS

It’s no secret that Walt Disney Pictures has been creatively floundering as of late. The past decade saw their animation studio take a confused tumble after the heights of their 90’s renaissance while their live action filmmaking got only the rare hit (Pirates of the Caribbean) between failures both instantly forgettable (G-Force, College Road Trip, Prince of Persia) and unfairly maligned (the fun John Carter and misunderstood Lone Ranger). Despite their considerable charms, Tangled and Frozen alone do not a new golden age make. No wonder they want to cast their corporate eye backwards with Saving Mr. Banks, remembering a high point of creative and commercial success through rosy glasses and the glossiest of Hollywood polish. The movie considers the early 1960s, in particular the preliminary stages of the making of 1964’s Mary Poppins, not-so-coincidentally out now in a sparkling new transfer on Blu-ray. Banks twinkles through script notes, songwriting, and storyboard meetings, largely focusing on Walt Disney’s attempts to convince P.L. Travers, the author of the Poppins books, to sign over the rights.

Travers was notoriously reluctant to turn her beloved writing over to the hands of Hollywood in general and Disney in particular. The movie casts the generally likable Emma Thompson in the role. Her performance creates a woman walking through life in brisk and brittle judgment, but with the inevitable softening always just under the surface of her snapping. In the film’s opening, she has to be talked into flying to Los Angeles to take a meeting with Disney. We hear that her royalties are drying up and so could use the boost of income. That the sign of her financial troubles is her having recently fired her assistant is not necessarily the most sympathetic of hardships is no matter. The movie isn’t about her financial pressures giving her reason to sign the contract. It’s about how a controlling creative type meets another controlling creative type and learns to compromise for the good of creating a classic film.

For this is a movie aware at all times that Mary Poppins will become an all-time classic. When Mr. Disney (Tom Hanks, so well-liked on his own, all he has to do is show up in costume to communicate some of Disney’s showbiz charm) has Travers sit in on development meetings with co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), it’s clear that every decision the studio makes that we can recognize from Poppins is meant to be the correct decision. When Travers snaps at the songwriting Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) over a small made-up word in one of the opening lyrics, they awkwardly glance at their pages of music, the camera dutifully focusing in on the word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” as punchline. Saving Mr. Banks plays upon our knowledge for one of the studio’s crowning achievements – one of the company’s very best films and their best live action effort by a country mile.

Poppins is a movie of such pure delight that it can’t help but rub off on this one a little bit. Filled up with Poppins’ songs and winking references to specific lines and images, Banks and its charming cast carries a residual charge. So what if director John Lee Hancock (of The Rookie, The Alamo, and The Blind Side) shoots the film with very little cinematic inspiration of his own, dutifully shooting the script glossily and anonymously. All the better for Poppins movie magic to shine through. The script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith very nearly makes Travers into a simple killjoy. Sure, she taps her toes to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” but she threatens to cancel the whole project after learning the dancing penguins will be cartoons and not trained penguins. There’s sympathy to be found in her position – after all, Disney is playing a game of semantics telling her the movie will not be animated, and then eventually admitting “not animated” doesn’t necessarily mean “no animation.” 

Travers was so against the frivolity and sugar of Disney, especially when it came to adapting her books, that one imagines having her life turned into a Disney movie could be a posthumous indignity. If she fought so hard to preserve the most important details of her books, imagine what she’d have to say about this movie. It’s a case of history written by the winners, a true story about a woman who feared the company would take a good story, sand off the hard edges, and make it into simpleton schmaltz.  And yet Saving Mr. Banks, for all its borrowed charms in the occasionally repetitive showbiz scenes, works. The screenplay weaves in flashbacks of biographical detail, finding Travers as a young girl (Annie Rose Buckley) in the Australian outback with her depressed mother (Ruth Wilson) and alcoholic banker father (Colin Farrell). These scenes have the emotional charge the fizzy Hollywood storyline doesn’t, and when the film finds sequences in which the flashback past and filmmaking present collide, it’s surprisingly moving. Though a rough correlation between her story and her life is too mushy to work as literary analysis, it makes for fine sentimental cinema.

The film is ultimately about a peculiar paradox that can befall creative types. Travers and Disney are both so committed to their own visions for the project, they do not see the value in anything that varies from what’s already in their heads. They’re stuck talking past each other, unable to use their considerable creativities to compromise. This is an interesting conflict on which to hang a story, especially considering that there’s no reconciliation here. It’s a strange tone for a film to settle upon, on the one hand polishing its corporate reputation while still finding some degree of sympathy for the woman who felt so compromised by Disney. Travers simply softens enough to sign away and Poppins is made more or less as Disney decided. That in real life, she refused to sign over the sequel rights after seeing the film is perhaps indicative this new film concludes slightly sweeter than it should. In the end, I reacted to Saving Mr. Banks in much the same way it portrays Travers at the premiere of Poppins. What it does, it does well. What she finds disagreeable leaves her arms crossed with a face of stone. What she finds it gets absolutely right moves her.

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