Jan. 17th, 2014

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After my little rant about the omission of director Robert Stevenson from "Saving Mr. Banks," I figured I had better go and actually watch the film to make sure I wasn't making a mountain out of a molehill. I think my point still stands, with a couple of caveats. Yes, the movie is limited to examining the two weeks of pre-production on "Mary Poppins" in 1961 that Stevenson had nothing to do with. And yes, plenty of other creatives who were vital to the film ended up on the cutting room floor, including writer Bill Walsh. Yet the events of "Saving Mr. Banks" as they played out were largely invented and very skewed. Walt Disney did greet P.L. Travers upon her arrival to California, and then promptly left town, so it still rankles that his presence looms so large in the film and he's been handed such an outsized share of the credit for the success of "Mary Poppins."

If you put all that aside and buy into the fictionalized version of events, though, how was the movie? Not bad. It's an entertaining watch, particularly if you're a fan of the 1964 "Mary Poppins" film, which I am. Emma Thompson plays the uptight, combatative P.L. Travers, author of the "Mary Poppins" books, who has been cajoled by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for over two decades to sell him the rights to make a "Poppins" film. Financial necessity forces her to board a plane to sunny Southern California, to work on a film treatment with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman). As Travers battles for creative control, we also learn the origins of "Mary Poppins" through flashbacks to her troubled childhood in Australia, when she was a little girl named Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) with a loving, but unstable alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).

The film starts out well enough, with Emma Thompson's performance a major highlight. P.L. Travers is a career curmudgeon, who hates cartoons and musicals, rolls her eyes at whimsy and sentiment, and makes impossible demands that change from one day to the next. Nobody likes her, with the exception of her cheerful driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), and she doesn't care. However, thanks to Thompson she isn't unlikeable. The scenes that take place at the studio, where we get to see some of the painful adaptation process for "Mary Poppins," is easily the best stuff in the film. This is also the material that is truest to history, since there are audio recordings of many of the initial story meetings with Travers and the "Mr. Banks" crew had one of the people who was actually in the room, Richard Sherman, to consult with.

Things get iffier with the portrayal of Walt Disney. Tom Hanks turns in a nice performance, but he's not playing Walt Disney as he was, but very much the corporate image of Walt Disney that he projected to the world, with a couple of minor faults like enjoying alcohol and the occasional cigarette. We get a few glimpses of the shrewd businessman who built the Disney empire, but you have to look pretty hard beneath the charming veneer of Uncle Walt. What's worse is the totally invented notion that the "Mary Poppins" film somehow purged Travers of some of her childhood demons, that Disney magic and Walt's insight into her psyche, rather than money, triumphed over her cynicism. This is the kind of sugarcoating that Disney detractors have always despised, and I couldn't help feeling pretty frustrated on Travers' behalf.

The film is well-made and well-executed, a feel-good bit of corporate self-gilding that most audiences should eat right up. If I had known less about the production history of "Mary Poppins" and Walt Disney, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more. The only really problematic stuff is the flashback sequences, which are commendably darker and tackle heavier subject matter than the usual Disney film, but they take up too much time and are rarely well connected to the events taking place in 1961. I wasn't surprised to learn that "Saving Mr. Banks" originally devoted far more attention to Travers' personal life and history, and the dealings with Disney were only added much later.

So all in all, I have very mixed feelings about the film. Thompson's performance is definitely worth the watch, and Disney fans should be happy to get a chance to see "Mary Poppins" concept sketches from the archives and the Sherman brothers working out the compositions for those iconic songs. But making-of films about famous films rarely manage to impress me, because there's too much of a tendency to glamorize real-life events, and this is just the latest example. The filmmaking process is fascinating enough without having to graft these tired old redemption plots into the works. I'm glad I saw "Saving Mr. Banks," but I wouldn't watch it again.

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