Mrs. Travers goes to Los Angeles: It’s Mickey vs. Mary in well crafted, absorbing film
I have to admit I was a bit skeptical going into Saving Mr. Banks, the new film from Disney Pictures and director John Lee Hancock, the writer and director of 2011’s feel-good The Blind Side. I was afraid this film might be too treacly and sentimental, and be nothing more than a glorification of Walt Disney and the Disney canon, in much the same way The Internship glorified Google. But my fears were allayed when I found myself utterly engrossed and thoroughly entertained by Hancock’s picture, which features a compelling narrative, complex characters, and excellent performances.
The film concerns the true story of Walt Disney’s nearly twenty-year attempt to convince author P.L. Travers to sell Disney the film rights to Mary Poppins, her enormously popular children’s book about the Banks family and their magical nanny. Specifically, the film focuses on the three year period in the early sixties in which Disney (Tom Hanks) brings a reluctant Travers (Emma Thompson) to Los Angeles from London to work with his screenwriter and composers in hopes of hammering out an adaptation of her book that would satisfy her enough to compel her to finally sign over the film rights.
That storyline is juxtaposed with another, equally interesting one; via flashbacks, we see P.L. Travers, then called by her birth name, Helen Goff (Annie Rose Buckley, not too cloying), growing up in rural Australia in the early 1900s with her doting but troubled alcoholic bank manager father, Travers Goff (Colin Ferrell), and her worried, emotionally removed mother, Margaret (Ruth Wilson). In emotionally riveting and often richly humorous ways, Hancock’s film explores how Travers’s girlhood experiences shape both her writing and her collaboration with Disney.
Thompson gives a layered, fierce performance as Travers, whose chilly, formal exterior masks deep childhood wounds that she would rather keep private. Her insistence on being called “Mrs. Travers” by everyone she meets, for example, including the exceedingly informal, St. Louis born-and-bred Disney – who has a first-names-only policy in his company – is one of the best running gags of the movie. And her overtly hostile reaction to Los Angeles itself (“it smells like chlorine and sweat,” she sniffs disgustedly) might be the funniest reaction of a non-Californian to the City of Angels since Woody Allen was horrified to find himself there in Annie Hall.
The way Travers verbally terrifies composer brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) is comically appalling; her more outrageous demands for the Mary Poppins film include not using the color red anywhere in the movie, as well as absolutely no animation (a point she would later lose, much to her chagrin). She also insists on tape-recording all of her working sessions, ostensibly so she would always have proof of promises made to her concerning the script. And she’s not shy about honestly sharing her feelings with Disney about his theme park and movies; she calls his productions “empty pap” to his face.
The film goes a nice job, then, contrasting Travers’s uptight, haughty, and often downright mean demeanor with Hanks’s much more accessible, down-to-earth, and kind Walt Disney. Hanks’s portrayal, fortunately, however, steers clear of outright hagiography; with Disney Pictures producing the film, obviously Mr. Disney is not going to be portrayed as a tyrant, but Hanks does let us see Disney’s frustration with the stubborn Travers – he’s not too nice of a guy to be genuinely annoyed, and, although he’s determined to bring Mary Poppins to life on screen, he’s far from a passive pushover.
Hanks and Thompson have terrific chemistry, and watching their spirited interactions is truly a pleasure. A scene near the end of the film when Disney opens up to Travers about his own childhood could have drifted into the sentimental “pap” Travers hated, but instead, in Hanks’s capable hands, the scene feels almost electric with its emotional charge, and is genuinely moving. Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, TV writers making their motion picture debut with this script, are to be commended for writing dialogue that is sincere without being too heavy-handed.
Thompson also has several well-drawn scenes with Paul Giamatti as Ralph, the good-hearted, working-class driver hired to chauffer her around town. Their rapport deepens over the course of the film, and watching them both slowly open up to each other is lovely, as each eventually discovers there is more to the other than meets the eye.
Some of the transitions between the present day scenes and the flashbacks feel a little too pat and contrived, but that’s only a small quibble with a film filled with so many rewards. In addition to Hanks and Thompson, the supporting cast is impeccable, with Novak, Shwartzman, Whitman, and Kathy Baker (as Disney’s brassy assistant Tommie) adeptly displaying equal parts charm and exasperation. And Rachel Griffiths nails a small but pivotal role as Helen Groff’s Aunt Ellie, a woman whose clear-eyed, take-charge manner would be the inspiration for a certain firm but loving nanny created by her niece.
Fans of Mary Poppins will especially relish the behind-the-scenes story of the making of that film, but even without being versed in Mary Poppins lore, viewers will have no trouble appreciating this story wholly on its own. As a beautiful tale of fathers, daughters, family disappointments, forgiveness, and the redemptive power of storytelling, this picture is one the entire family can enjoy together, and is perfect for a holiday movie outing (unlike, say, the brooding Out of the Furnace, which I reviewed last week).
One final note: be sure to stay through the very end of the film; snippets of the actual tapes that Travers so meticulously recorded during her collaboration sessions are played, and being able to listen to the voices of the real people just portrayed on screen is an utterly unique, delightful treat.
Saving Mr. Banks opens in Bay Area theaters today.