“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

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“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for the recent biopic, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, I knew I would like it. First of all, the movie was about the development of one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1964 musical “MARY POPPINS”. And two, it featured some very humorous moments that I personally found appealing. Not long after the movie first hit the theaters, I rushed to see it as soon as I possibly could.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, “SAVING MR. BANKS” told the story of “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers‘ two-week stay in 1961 Los Angeles, while filmmaker Walt Disney attempts to obtain from her, the official screen rights to her novels. The development of “SAVING MR. BANKS” began when Australian filmmaker Ian Collie produced a documentary on Travers back in 2002. He saw a potential biopic and convinced Essential Media and Entertainment to develop a feature film with Sue Smith as screenwriter. The project attracted the attention of producer Alison Owen, who subsequently hired Kelly Marcel to co-write the screenplay with Smith. Marcel removed a subplot involving Travers and her son, and divided the story into a two-part narrative – the creative conflict between Travers and Disney, and her dealings with her childhood issues. Because Marcel’s version featured certain intellectual property rights that belonged to the he Walt Disney Company, Owen approached Corky Hale, who informed former Disney composer, Richard M. Sherman of the script. Sherman supported Marcel’s script. Meanwhile, the Disney Studios learned of the script, as well. Instead of purchasing the script in order to shut down the production, they agree to co-produce the movie, allowing Kelly Marcel access to more material regarding the production of “MARY POPPINS”. The Disney Studios approached Tom Hanks for the role of Walt Disney, who accepted. When they failed to secure Meryl Streep for the role of P.L. Travers, they turned to Emma Thompson, who accepted it.

Through the urging of her literary agent, a financially struggling P.L. Travers finally decides to leave her London home, and agreed to meet and negotiate with Walt Disney in Los Angeles over the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” stories, after twenty years. While in Los Angeles, Travers express disgust over what she regards as the city’s unreality and the naivety and overbearing friendliness of its inhabitants like her assigned limousine driver, Ralph. At the Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers collaborates with the creative team assigned to develop the movie – screenwriter/artist
Don DaGradi, Richard and Robert Sherman. She finds their casual manner and their handling of the adaptation of her novels distasteful. And Travers is also put off by Disney’s jocular and familiar personality. She pretty much remains unfriendly toward her new acquaintances and a new set of problems arise between her and the studio. Her collaboration with the Disney Studios also reveals painful memories of her childhood in 1906-07 Australia and memories of her charismatic father, Travers Goff, who was losing a battle against alcoholism; and her mother Margaret Goff, who nearly committed suicide, due to her inability to control Goff’s heaving drinking.

Hollywood politics can be mind-boggling. I learned this valuable lessons, following the reactions to not only the recent historical drama, “THE BUTLER”, but also the reactions to “SAVING MR. BANKS”. The first movie came under fire by conservatives for its historical inaccuracies, when President Ronald Reagan’s son accused that movie of a false portrait of his father. Some four-and-a-half months later, many feminists accused the Disney Studios of not only damaging P.L. Travers’ reputation, but also of historical inaccuracies. Actress Meryl Streep, who had been an earlier candidate for the role of Travers, added her two cents by openly accused Walt Disney of being a bigot on so many levels, while presenting an acting award to Emma Thompson. Since political scandal brought “SAVING MR. BANKS” under heavy criticism for historical accuracy or lack of, I figure I might as well discuss the matter.

Was the movie historically accurate in its portrayal of P.L. Travers? Many criticized the movie’s failure to delve into the author’s bisexuality and relationship with her adopted son. What they failed to realize was that Travers’ sex life and adopted son had nothing to do with her creation of “Mary Poppins” or her dealings with Disney. The movie they wanted was the movie written by Sue Smith. And Alison Owen had put the kibbosh on those storylines long before the Disney Studios got involved. Disney did meet with Travers at her London home. Only he did so in 1959, not 1961. But the movie was accurate about him gaining the movie rights after her 1961 visit. Disney’s 1959 London trip only resulted in his acquiring an option – which gave the filmmaker a certain period of time to acquire the actual film rights. However, Travers’ family, the Goffs, moved to Allora, Queensland in 1905, not 1906 as the movie had suggested.

Was Travers that difficult, as suggested in the movie? I honestly have no idea. Richard Sherman made it clear that he found her difficult to like. I have read somewhere that Travers had managed to alienate both her adopted son and her grandchildren by the time of her death in 1996. And there are also . . . the audio tapes that recaptured Travers’ sessions with Don Di Gradi and the Sherman Brothers in 1961. Tapes that she had requested. She did not come off well in those tapes. Critics also claimed that the movie idealized Disney. Here, I have to keep myself from laughing. Granted, the movie and actor Tom Hanks portrayed the “Disney charm” at its extreme. But the movie also made it clear that Disney was utilizing his charm to convince Travers to sign over the movie rights. And quite frankly, his charm came off as somewhat overbearing and manipulative in some scenes. I perfectly understood Travers’ reaction to the sight of Disney stuffed animals, balloons and fruit baskets in her hotel room. And I certainly sympathize with her reaction to being dragged to Disneyland against her will. I have loved the theme park since I was a kid. But if I had been in Travers’ shoes, I would have been pissed at being dragged to some location against my will.

When the movie first flashed back to Travers’ Australian childhood, I had to suppress an annoyed sigh. I really was not interested in her childhood, despite what the movie’s title had indicated. But the more the movie delved into her childhood and made the connections to her creation of the “Mary Poppins” and the development of the 1964 movie, the more I realized that Kelly Marcel had written a brilliant screenplay. By paying close attention to the story during my second viewing of the movie, I noticed the connections between the tragic circumstances of Travers’ childhood, “Mary Poppins”and her 1961 Los Angeles visit. Some of the connections I made were the following:

*Travers’ aversion of Southern California weather, which must have reminded her of Australia and her childhood

*Her aversion to pears, which reminded her of Travers Goff’s death

*Her aversion to a Mr. Banks with facial hairs

*Her aversion to Mr. Banks’ cinematic personality

*Her aversion to the color red, which may have also reminded her of Mr. Goff’s death

*Her reaction to the Sherman Brothers’ song – “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank”, which brought back painful memories of an incident regarding her father at a local fair

*Her Aunt Ellie, whom she re-created as Mary Poppins

I also have to compliment the movie’s visual re-creation of both 1961 Southern California and Edwardian Queensland, Australia. Production designer Michael Corenblith had to re-create both periods in Travers’ life. And if I must be honest, he did an exceptional job – especially in the 1961 scenes. His work was ably supported by Lauren Polizzi’s colorful art direction, and Susan Benjamin’s set decorations. I also enjoyed Daniel Orlandi’s elegant and subtle costumes for the movie. I was amazed by his re-creation of both Edwardian and mid-20th century fashion, as seen in the images below:

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I found John Schwartzman’s photography very interesting . . . especially in the 1961 sequences. Unlike other productions that tend to re-create past Los Angeles in another part of the country (2011’s “MILDRED PIERCE”), “SAVING MR. BANKS” was shot entirely in Southern California. But what I found interesting about Schwartzman’s photography is that he utilized a good deal of close-up in those exterior scenes for Beverly Hills and Burbank in an effort to hide the changes that had occurred in the past 50 years. But as much as he tried, not even Schwartzman could hide the fact that the Fantasyland shown in the movie was the one that has existed since 1983. Mark Livolsi’s editing did a solid job in enabling Schwartzman to hide the changes of time for the Southern California exteriors. But I also have to commend Livolsi for his superb editing of one particular sequences – namely the juxtaposition of the 1961 scene featuring the Sherman Brothers’ performance of the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” song and the 1906 scene of the bank-sponsored fair in Allora. Thanks to Livolsi’s editing, John Lee Hancock’s excellent direction and Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Travers Goff, this sequence proved to be the most mind-blowing and unforgettable in the entire movie.

Since I had mentioned Colin Farrell, I might as well discuss the cast’s performances. Emma Thompson won the National Board of Review award for Best Actress for her superb portrayal of the very complex P.L. Travers. She did a superb job in capturing both the author’s bluntness, cultural snobishness and imagination. The movie and Thompson’s performance also made it perfectly clear that Travers was still haunted over her father’s death after so many decades. One would think Tom Hanks had an easier job in his portrayal of filmmaker Walt Disney. Superficially, I would agree. But Hanks did an excellent job in conveying some of the more annoying aspects of Disney’s character behind the charm – especially in his attempts to win over Travers. And two particular scenes, Hanks also captured Disney’s own private demons regarding the latter’s father. Colin Farrell gave one of the best performances of his career as Travers’ charming, yet alcoholic father, Travers Goff. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Allora Fair scene. Bradley Whitford was cast as Disney Studios animator/screenwriter Don DaGradi. He not did a first-rate job in portraying DaGradi’s enthusiasm as a Disney employee, but also in portraying how that enthusiasm nearly waned under the weight of Travers’ negative reactions to the project. Both Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak were cast as the songwriting brothers – Richard and Robert Sherman. And they both did excellent jobs in capturing the pair’s contrasting personalities. Schwartzman was deliciously all pep and enthusiasm as the extroverted and younger Richard. And yet, he very subtlely conveyed the younger Sherman’s anxieties in dealing with the difficult Travers. Novak struck me as very effective in his portrayal of the more introverted and intense Robert. And he was also very subtle in portraying the older Sherman’s own penchant for bluntness, especially in one scene in which the songwriter openly clashed with Travers. Ruth Wilson managed to give a very memorable performance as Travers’ long-suffering mother, Margaret Goff. She was especially impressive in one tense scene that featured Mrs. Goff’s suicide attempt. And Paul Giamatti was simply marvelous as Travers’ fictional limousine driver, Ralph. He managed to be both sweet and charming, without being saccharine. The movie also featured solid performances from Annie Rose Buckley, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Rachel Griffiths and Ronan Vibert.

I must admit that I still feel angry over how “SAVING MR. BANKS” was deprived from any Academy Award nominations, aside from one for Thomas Newman’s score. And if I must be brutally honest, I did not find his score particularly memorable. I was more impressed by John Lee Hancock’s direction, the movie’s visual styles, the performances from a superb cast led by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks; and especially the Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith screenplay. And considering how so much talent was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts, I do not think I can take Hollywood’s politics seriously anymore. It seems a travesty that this superb film ended up as a victim of Hollywood’s flaky politics.

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