Sunday, December 29, 2013

Love: Saving Mr. Banks

In 1964 the Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, and won quite a few of them.  It's easy to forget that now, and perhaps even easier to dismiss the awards as trifles. We've shifted Mary Poppins into iconography, and for many the film feels like a childhood necessity that is either loved to the point of being taken for granted or was never fully appreciated in the first place (in which case: try again, please).  Books on the time period tend to lump the big, family-friendly musical pictures of the time together as signs of a Hollywood still bracing for its own maturity, and while that may be partially true, it fails to take into account how wonderful some of those effervescent properties truly were, and are.  Mary Poppins is, I would argue, something really quite special.  Whatever your criticisms of Walt Disney might be, the man knew how to lovingly construct cinema for audiences of all-ages, and what Saving Mr. Banks offers is a Disneyfied version of a chapter in Disney's own history; schmaltzy and amended, sure, but surprising in its potency.   
On the main stage, of course, Saving Mr. Banks is interested in Disney's 20 year process of coaxing author Pamela (P.L.) Travers to grant them the film rights to her series of children's books.  We meet Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) on the morning she's meant to fly from her prim, organized home in London to the mid-century sprawl of Los Angeles and immediately understand that there's something about the idea of giving up a part of her beloved characters that sickens her to her very core.  Emma Thompson has a great talent for school marminess, and an even greater one for managing to remain extremely likable even at her most severe. As the tightly permed Mrs. Travers, she masters a range of cherry-lipped sneers and disapproving glances in the face of Tom Hanks' down home attempts at friendly seduction.  Though Hanks looks the part of Disney, and sells it well, Thompson's clipped sentences, incessant curtness, and bossypants one-liners work to remind the viewer at each turn that this is her show.  Travers and Thompson throw their collective weight around to the point of frustration, but the film doesn't allow us to linger for too long in the author's murky frustration.

Instead, director John Lee Hancock divides the film between the events of the Disney/Travers standoff and the writer's Australian childhood as Helen Goff.  We dance from the luxury of Travers' embittered stubbornness to the rather tragic events following her family's move to a small-town farmhouse.  We meet her worn-out mother, but more than that we're shown the impact of her relationship with her alcoholic father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).  Hancock ties the memories and their triggers together smoothly, allowing us to slowly understand the worldview of the grown-up Pamela Travers through the heartbreaks of her younger self.  Farrell is a bit awkward, perhaps uncomfortable, but we understand enough of why Helen was so enamored with her troubled father, just how charming and playful he could be, and the reasons why she seems to carry the ghost of him with her at all times. The scenes do the trick, but put a damper on the pacing of the film. Where the 1961 scenes fly by, they begin to obviously mask the severity of the Aussie memories like a spoonful of sugar to medicine.
Somehow, though, Hancock does manage to tie everything all together in a neat, effective little package. The cross-histories of Travers and Disney, as we know, do eventually resolve themselves into a beloved, classic film.  Whether or not it was looked upon fondly by the prickly Travers or momentarily endured is up for debate, but Saving Mr. Banks convinces us that something was indeed accomplished, that magic was worked, the stories were revised and rewritten, and that all was resolved with a happy ending.  By the end of the film it may not actually matter what Travers thought of the project for what Hancock ultimately does is remind us how beautiful an object as magical, innocent, and redemptive as Mary Poppins truly is.  It has something to say about the transportive qualities of artworks (stories, films, etc) and the way meaning is found that sneaks in there and manages to cross all the wires between the emotions of the characters and the emotions of the audience.  It's a bit cheesy and sickly sweet, sure, but damn if it isn't dead on.

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