Friday, December 20, 2013
SAVING MR. BANKS (Dir. John Lee Hancock, 2013)
You don’t have to have had read up on the all the inaccuracies in this fatally fluffy film to see how bogus of a biopic it is. It’s a Disney-fied white-washing of the story behind the making of the classic 1964 musical MARY POPPINS that’s about as convincing as last year’s lackluster HITCHCOCK, another piece of blatant Oscar-bait.
As the film scripted by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith tells it, initially reluctant “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers was won over by Walt Disney, whose 1964 adaptation complete with the songs and dancing cartoon penguins she originally objected to, made her cry at the film’s premiere. But it’s well documented that in reality Travers cried at what Disney had done to her character, and she forbade them to ever make a sequel, even expressly stipulating in her will (she died in 1996) that no American can ever adapt her work again.
Those aren’t things you’ll learn in the sugar-coated SAVING MR. BANKS, opening wide today. Emma Thompson portrays P.L. Travers as a prissy no-nonsense party pooper, who only gives in after 20 years of Disney’s pleading to sell the rights to her sacred text because she needs the money. Over the course of two weeks in 1961 Hollywood, Disney, played by Tom Hanks laying on his Tom Hanksian charms as thick as he can, attempts to woo Travers into selling with his MARY POPPINS creative team made up of Bradley Whitford as co-writer Don DaGradi, and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the composer/lyricist brother duo of Richard and Robert Sherman.
Thompson’s Travers is plagued with memories of her childhood in Queensland, Australia, mostly consisting of Colin Farrell as her drunken father making a mess of his family’s life. These 1907-set scenes are presented as flashbacks, some fading into the more recent past GODFATHER PART II-style, but many are just cut to and from with little organic sense. Whatever the case they are repetitive and add very little.
Better, but not much, are the Burbank backlot rehearsal room set-pieces. There’s at least some bouncy wit present as when Novak slips the sheet music for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” out of sight after Thompson’s complaint about the song-writing duo making up words (“‘Responstible’ is not a word!”).
Sure, I get that this is a Disney production that has difficulty even owning up that its beloved head honcho smoked more than an occasional cigarette, but there’s no weight to any of this. Disney is just a man who wants to make a movie for his daughters who love the “Mary Poppins” books, while Travers wants to protect the integrity of her story, with its theme that the famous nanny wasn’t there to save the children; she was there to save the father (Farrell’s father character being the real Mr. Banks). In yet another tiresome flashback we see that Poppins was based on Travers’ stern Aunt Ellie, played by Six Feet Under’s Rachel Griffiths, but that’s a revelation that barely registers. The film’s attempts to draw humor from Thompson sneering at the excesses of the magical kingdom fall flat, while Thomas Newman’s derivative of classic Disney score came nowhere close to pulling on my heartstrings.
On the surface, SAVING MR. BANKS is reasonably polished and well produced, with fine performances by Thompson, Hanks, and the rest of the cast (including the superfluous but still welcome casting of Paul Giamatti as Traver’s chauffeur). It probably won’t get much Academy Award action, but it looks like a Golden Globe getter if there ever was one.
But ultimately it’s a case of sentimental self promotion with very little truth or even truthiness to it. If the real P.L. Travers cried when she saw what was done to her creation, I bet she would’ve walked out on this.