Saving Mr Banks
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Written by Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith
Original score by Thomas Newman
1961 Hollywood & London:
Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney
Paul Giamatti as Ralph, the chauffeur
B.J. Novak as Robert Sherman
Jason Schwartzman as Richard Sherman
Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi
Annie Rose Buckley as Ginty (Helen Goff)
Colin Farell as Travers Goff
Ruth Wilson as Margaret Goff
This ticks a lot of positive boxes for me. Character driven. Dialogue driven. Set in Hollywood’s Golden era (well, end of). The subject is screenwriting, particularly writers in Hollywood (my 1970 thesis was Hollywood & The Novel). Significant original score (the film’s only Oscar nomination). Excellent use of existing Mary Poppins songs by R & R Sherman, but showing them being composed. It’s also yet another 2013 “based on a true story.”
It’s the reverse of my favourite TV sitcom, Episodes. In Episodes our heroes, the British scriptwriters confront the Hollywood machine. In Saving Mr Banks the unreasonable one is the children’s writer P.L.Travers (Emma Thompson) and the reasonable ones are Walt Disney and his writing and musical team.
It’s the story of P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins and how she was pursued by Disney to film her story after spending twenty years rejecting all his studio’s advances. Mrs Travers is an uptight (apparently) English woman, a stickler for niceties like “Number 17 …” for a street address rather than “17 …”, and “Let us …” rather than “Let’s …”. She’s so paranoid about her precious character that she insists on all scripting meetings being taped. OK … the film has a lovely twist. The closing credits break to reveal the original tape of the original meetings in 1961 with the real P.L. Travers making the same points. I assume this is genuine? It means the writers had great research resources if so.
P.L. Travers is apparently English, because P.L. Travers was the nom de plume of Australian author Helen Goff, and the film is intercut all the way through with the story of her childhood as an 8 year old in Australia (played by Annie Rose Buckley). The colors change for the Australian sequences, and to be honest, a lot of Australia looks like California, which is used as a transition device with palm tree tops and blue skies, for these 1906 sequences. The 1906 story is a kind of “The drunkard and his child” tragedy which is the life of Helen with an alcoholic but magical and inspiring dad (Colin Farrell). They move to a small town at the end of the line. He drinks. He loses his job in the bank. Her mother gets near to suicide. A nurse arrives like Mary Poppins to put them in order. He dies. The Australia story shows her psychological motivation for writing Mary Poppins and that Mr Banks in the story was based on her dad.
London: Walt Disney has followed P.L. Travers to her home
In one of the most moving sequences in a film that is both funny and moving, Hanks as Disney has followed Travers to London when she walks out on the project. He recounts his childhood, and how harsh it was, and how he has to put it behind him. Travers can do the same by stopping trying to protect her creation like a mother hen, and letting it escape to the world. As Mary Poppins did when it was made into the Dick Van Dyke / Julie Andrews film.
The intercutting runs all the way through from beginning to end, and it struck me that the two casts would only have met at the premiere. Australia is muted, sun-blasted. California is technicolour, and an excellent time marker is that Disney’s assistant has a different 1961 pastel-coloured dress in every scene … she must have worn a dozen.
Helen Goff with her father, Travers Goff, 1906
Hanks doesn’t play Disney so much as become Walt Disney. He’s a great actor because while his nose and ears make him immediately physically distinctive, he can submerge that into whatever role he’s playing. I think he deserved at least an Oscar nomination each for both this and for Captain Phillips. What is so remarkable is producing both such radically different character interpretations in the same year. It’s a pity they can’t give an Oscar for “range covered by an actor in the last year.”
Emma Thompson has well-deserved nominations in the other awards. Again, I’m surprised she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for this film, though it’s a very strong field for women this year. Whatever, she should be in the race. There is irony in the casting. Emma Thompson wrote and starred in the Nanny MacPhee films, a far funnier take on the Mary Poppins idea, and when the aunt-nurse arrives to take charge in Australia, it’s reminiscent of Nanny McPhee as well as Mary Poppins.
Ralph, the chauffeur
A special mention for Paul Giametti in his role as the Disney company chauffeur, “the only American I like” as Mrs Travers finally says. Very warm, but also very amusing.
The songwriting sequences are so real … when the Shermans, Molly and DaGradi act out Fly A Kite they do it as real people hoofing it up in a rehearsal room … all temptation to make them dance brilliantly is resisted. A second mention for Thomas Newman whose awesome orchestral music ranges from full classical to virtually Terry Riley minimalist.
The film is a Disney production, as it would have to be to explore a Disney film, or as the Disney legal arm would say in 2014, “Disney property.” And they’d ask for the text to be peppered with ™ symbols. The real Walt? I don’t know. The real Walt did indeed bring great works of children’s literature to the screen: Peter Pan, Wind In The Willows, Winnie The Pooh, Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland. We can believe that his persuasive powers were massive. I get the magic of Disney, so I’m prepared to go along with the portrayal by Tom Hanks of an avuncular Uncle Walt. The first films that gave me nightmares were Snow White and Dumbo (I know, but it was those psychedelic flying elephants). The first film I sat through jaw dropping at the wonder was Lady & The Tramp. We first went to Disney World in the late 80s, and have subsequently been with a second generation of kids. A tear comes to my eye when I recall how magic Disney 1988 was to my kids. As a grandparent, it’s been good to see it all again afresh, though one tends to be relegated to endless repeats if It’s A Small World with the youngest child on your knee while the older ones do more exciting things with mum and dad. I don’t mind. Wide-eyed happy kids in Disney? Great. A character birthday lunch was perfect for my granddaughter when Ariel sat her on her knee and chatted to her. The next day in the parade Ariel waved to her and called her name, The Little Mermaid then became her personal magic Disney film. I’d also add that the parks were better in the 80s, with friendlier and more orderly lines for rides, but that was a mainly American crowd, with a few British and Canadians. Internationalization has meant lots of people who can’t understand that the storyline is a major part of the ride, because they can’t speak enough English to grasp it, and many come from cultures where people don’t stand in line with such docility … in spite of the British reputation for loving to queue, I’d say Americans are even better at it. In the 80s we found ourselves in cheerful conversation with neighbors in most lines. Not now. I saw a fight break out in the Thunder Mountain line at Disney Paris and no one tried to stop it either.
I also know that many people have an instant shuddering anti- reaction to Disney parks, a reaction which exists before they go there, and going there only confirms their preconceptions. The British intellectual class is represented strongly in this group, not that it lacks American members. They don’t know what they’re missing, and P.L. Travers serves as their snooty representative through most of the film. Disney knows its detractors! I also know people who worked for Disney. One account was in the early 70s of an incredibly serious meeting with the American bosses addressing the British office. As they discussed possible moves, the head American would keep saying “But what would Mickey do in this situation?” My informant said the British team were virtually wetting themselves trying to avoid collapsing in laughter. Eventually one was asked what was wrong with him, whereupon he finally erupted in laughter and said, “But it’s a mouse. And it’s not even a real mouse. It’s a fucking drawing!” He was fired.
I’d also have to say that I had never liked the film of Mary Poppins. Like most British viewers I can’t get past Dick Van Dyke’s performance with the very worst attempt at a mangled British accent ever recorded on film. OK, he can sing, he can dance, he can gurn in a smile-like way, but Van Dyke is a major, major barrier for British viewers, though it is saved by Julie Andrews personifying the character of Mary Poppins. The real P.L. Travers must have loved her accent. The animated penguins caused her walk out from Hollywood. They show that sequence when she attends the premiere. I never liked 2D animations interacting with real actors. She had a point. But listening to those writing sequences in Saving Mr Banks I am happy to admit that it was always a superb musical score, and the songs are standards.
P.L. Travers in script meeting, fearful that they’re taking liberties
The movie apparently takes a few liberties. Mrs Travers had signed a contract before going to Hollywood for ten days so the “will she / won’t she sign” drama is an addition. It’s also untrue that Disney visited her in London, though he did persuade her in private conversation. See hypable.com (link) for nine untrue points. It seems true that she stipulated “no red in the movie” and I guess the liberties tell a story that was basically in line with the conflicts.
But I’ll leave it on a positive note. I’ve read the biographies, or Walt with Warts. I like my mental picture of Walt to be the Tom Hanks Walt. I want a happy ending. I got it.