There are Spoilers in this Review. So if you have not seen Saving Mr. Banks as yet and do not want some plot devices revealed spit spot and off you go.
Saving Mr. Banks is a film that is very difficult to just “sum up”. One tries to think of a category to place it. Family film, sure. Drama? Has that. Comedy? I chuckled several times more than the latest film I viewed that was actually billed as a comedy. Musical? Yes. Can you get better than a revisit to the Sherman brothers? Historical? Yes. So where do you put it? Horror? There are plenty of things I could view in this film that would have been my personal childhood nightmare. Given what I know of this film and what I know of cinema in general I place it squarely in Disney as a category. This is of course not a slight, it finds itself in wonderful and talented company, right along side the film it chronicles: Mary Poppins.
Like it’s predecessor, the film sits on the palette waiting to be savored. Again like Mary Poppins, it’s hardly a one-note story, for within we find multiple personalities in conflict, resolution, artistic collaboration, isolation, reflection and as well we find questions and complexities of our human natures that make us pause before digestion. It’s a fine meal of a film that asks at it’s heart if we can overcome the darkness present in the world and rewrite our own tragedies through the craft of story telling.
This film feels like an Open Letter of Apology addressed to one P.L. Travers a/k/a Hellen Goff. Mary Poppins is one of the most mature films from the classic Disney lot & that I think is thanks in no small part to Mrs. Travers. To wit Disney has acknowledged her collaboration in a more positive light. Some hatchets take forever to bury. And this over their falling out some 50 years ago over the chalk drawing animated sequence is no exception. In popular view P.L. Travers has largely been identified as difficult, demanding, brutal and according to one Disney Legend lyricist “She was a witch.” But, well begun is half done and Disney appears to be making an effort with this film to shine a light on this complex woman. It is up to us the viewers to look at this story with new empathetic eyes.
Pamela, I beg pardon, Mrs. Travers
A tightly wound study of the proper governess of her stories. She is their nursemaid & guardian in a culture clash between the literary world and the entertainment industry of Hollywood. She is a woman combatting two sides of her nature, one handed down to her by her father, the other handed her by life’s cruel lessons; part a curious and heartbroken child, part a defiant yet isolated woman. An actress when handed this role is handed no small task, and who else but Emma Thompson is up to this challenge? Her Pamela is full of nuance, neurosis and empathy. She is flesh and blood within the first scene. And even though she delivers lines such as “Will the child be a nuisance, it is an 11 hour flight?” to a kind mother of an infant you start to feel empathy for this person over the film. This is a tribute to Emma Thompson’s command of her craft.
Hers is a tale woven in the fabric of reflection. Not just personal meditative reflection but in the story itself is running a parallel tract with her own childhood. The flashback scenes show that child that still resides deep in Mrs. Travers that she mourns for. This mourning and internal conflict leads her from collaboration to self imposed isolation. She says about her creation “(Mary Poppins) She doesn’t sugar coat the darkness that children must inevitably face.” And no matter how beguiling and charming and downright friendly the folks at Disney are, Mrs. Travers attempts to remain an iceberg in the middle of Los Angeles.
“Don’t leave me.” “Never. I will never leave you.”
This is a film about Fathers and Daughters. We see them on display in a number of ways: Walt’s promise to his daughters to bring the film to fruition; the driver Ralph and his concerns of daughter Jane, and in no uncertain terms Hellen Goff and Travers Goff. And if ever there was a tale of childhood tragedy you need look no further than the Goff’s existence in Australia.
Her father, Travers, is stifled, a creative soul shoved into a suit and handed a ledger. So he turns to the drink. And becomes publicly embarrassed. Then eventually passes from consumption. There is again a tightly woven parallel between Travers Goff and George Banks and this passionate love for her father explains her apprehension to any changes to his representation on screen and in technicolor. As a child Ginty Goff protected her father, idolized him; like her, he too was a flawed human being.
Another parallel is presented in Jane and Michael Banks letter, their kite and young Helen Goff’s poem and having her heart broken. Her father angrily sober responds to her oeuvre: “It’s not Yates is it?” so Ginty retrieves the alcohol as she has realized that is what has made her father so childlike innocent and accepting. The Banks’ torn kite is like Traver’s broken heart, her dismissed poem their likewise dismissed letter for a new nanny. As her father dies in some ways so does Helen Goff’s childhood; her innocence of the hardships and cruelty in the World. Travers Goff certainly had his own cage of circumstances handed to him by life, as do we all, and it’s a tragedy for a child to witness the public and private ruination of their parent. That story turns for Mrs. Travers as finally the dam breaks: and by an ending rewrite that magical Hollywood panacea, Let’s Go Fly a Kite seems to be the thaw. In one of the most joyous scenes Mrs. Travers is finally overcome as her own story is rewritten and her father is redeemed. Her heart is finally mended, just like the kite.
An American icon is a hard item to reproduce. But Tom Hanks as Disney has that folksy jovial humor about him, and while his voice isn’t right, nor does he resemble him greatly physically, he favors Disney in his warmth and compassion but also in his directness in business and his appeal to do things better. There are nuances such as Disney not having a great amount of compliments he passed around, but if he handed an artist a “That’ll work.” they knew their job was done. As well him clearing his throat before entering a room, and his tragic coughing that Disney fans know all to well was an early symptom of the illness that would eventually claim him, lung cancer.
Yes I cried when those gates parted and there was Walt smiling and waving. For each time I enter a Disney Park, that’s what I think about, a gentle welcome from Uncle Walt saying “Thank you for visiting, please enjoy.” And there it was on screen.
When I’ve told people how much I love Disney, they sometimes scoff. And we see that on display here as Walt is scoffed at mercilessly as a fake, as schmaltz, as nothing more than the plasticine he sells in his gift shops. But Walt is a story teller at heart. He too is lovingly human in this film, and as he relates his own relationship with Elias Disney (who passed on while Walt was visiting South America and Walt unfortunately did not attend his funeral), you sense a fellow iceberg that goes deeper in relation to Mrs. Travers. Walt was no Saint, but he wasn’t a Demon either. He was a man, a beautifully gifted story teller, a master show man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, and a visionary.
His promise that “George Banks will be redeemed” hits the need straight on in Pamela Travers heart. I was advised by my mentor once to not ever look at things on the surface but when in negotiations always look for what that person needs to hear to be able to sleep at night with their decision, and to fulfill it if at all possible. This is what Walt does in his visit to London. He could assure that the color red would never appear in Mary Poppins, or waste bin the animated sequence, but if George Banks was not to be saved time and again, the story here wouldn’t have worked and I doubt the eventual film would gel into the Classic we know.
“That’s what storytellers do. We restore order with imagination we instill hope again and again and again.” There again that salvo that you can rewrite that pain of your childhood of tragedy of the ugliness that intercedes in our lives. It’s all in how you choose to look at it and yes deal with it. Hanks is a spoonful of sugar indeed.
Forget Ironic, That’s Iconic.
The supporting cast leaves nothing to be desired. B.J. Novak as a combustible Robert Sherman is perfectly timed and exactly how I would imagine Bob Sherman would have reacted in those story meetings. Jason Silverman as Richard Sherman imbibes that upbeat vibrancy and optimism in some ways you get from watching Dick play the piano.
Writing collaboration can at times be a nightmarish marriage of separate imaginations, this awkward relationship is perfectly displayed by the presence of Bradley Whitford as Mary Poppins screenwriter Don DaGradi. His enthusiasm for the source material and ever hopeful approach to finding a way (any way!) to make this story happen is the perfect foil for Thompson’s no filter approach in the collaborative meetings.
Colin Farrell is loving, charming and tragic as the fated Travers Goff. His turn as Travers father was heart rending and as honest as any portrayal I have seen of Farrell’s career. Tragedy given as a beautiful relationship is sometimes the hardest to take, and Farrell handles his story arc with a deft, capable hand that leaves you ever hoping (like the process of watching one you love suffer from substance abuse) that he will become triumphant.
Paul Giamatti as Ralph, P.L. Travers optimistic driver plays the foil for Thompson with aplomb in his scenes. His positive outlook even when facing personal struggles and ability to meet Travers on common ground is time well spent in the film. I identified with this line in particular with regard to his special needs child: “You can worry about the future but you can’t do that. Only today.” And as a parent to a child with a developmental disability this was a balm for me to hear in a film. Because it rang out so true. And the way it was delivered sounded as though it came from someone who has fought that battle, like all of us.
Here’s the thing, NO ONE felt like they were phoning it in, not one single person was a one-dimensional character. Further supporting cast include the ever wonderful Kathy Baker as Walt’s Executive Secretary & Melanie Paxson as Dollie; and the Australian Goff family, Rachel Griffiths as Mary Poppins (sort of) in the flesh and Ruth Wilson as Margaret Goff, a mother and wife torn between love, duty, and public humiliation.
Each has their turn to shine, but it never feels unbalanced as if one person is walking away with the historically accurate scenery between their teeth. They are all very real and play off of one another with a natural chemistry that belies a long term relationship of collaboration or familial ties.
Well Turned Out
As the director, John Lee Hancock has made a marvelous film. The parallels between P.L. Travers journey to Hollywood and Hellen Goff’s journey to the end of the line Alora, Australia as a child starts off a domino effect of reflection. This is handily and masterfully woven into the contents of the film to where the natural conclusions are drawn by the viewer and not forced. It’s a gentleness in this direction, a capable hand guiding us through the necessary guide points so that we fully understand the underlying details that drive someone to seem as stiff and unrelenting. To show us that not everyone is as we think they are at first glance.
Themes present in this film don’t feel slammed in your face but allowed to ruminate; they are present like the smell of water at Disneyland, fleeting but palpable. It takes someone comfortable in their own craft to not hit you over the head with these ideas but to let you wade in at your leisure.
Was there ever any doubt that when I finally saw this film I would fall in love with it? Though I waited and watched friends and family see it I was warned to take kleenex, to not wear mascara, how good it was, and to watch Mary Poppins for a refresher. And while I cried a little, I was deeply and sincerely moved by this experience and it brings to light relationships with our parents, with our children, and how we deal with our own tragedies with a spoonful of sugar.
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