Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

The author of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers has quite the experience dealing with Walt Disney and Co. as he courts her for rights to her beloved novel. She entertains them because she needs the money a movie deal will give her, but she really doesn't want to sell, especially if they're going to make as many changes to the story and characters as she's afraid they will. She's very particular that everything stays exactly how she imagined, and we slowly learn why though flashbacks of her childhood in early 1900's Australia, and then watch her protest and drag her heels in 1960's Los Angeles while bubbly assistants, scriptwriters songwriters and Disney himself obtusely parade her "Disneyfied" story in front of her.

"No, no, no!" is her favorite expression.

So the movie slowly sifts though poor Mrs. Travers' mixed and jumbled emotions as she clings hesitantly to the movie rights while Disney gently tugs on them. And it does it in a more interesting way than I originally thought it would. Half the movie is very much a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Mary Poppins, and being a fan of the movie for as long as I can remember, I found that interesting and fun.

But I also know that a considerable amount of it didn't actually happen. Like in a scene where the writers have had a breakthrough, and present her with something she actually not only approves of, but likes so much that she temporarily comes out of her shell and starts dancing around the room with the screenwriter. It was sweet; it made me smile, but I was simultaneously thinking "no way this actually happened."

I certainly hope that some of the amusing parts weren't made up though!

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks' performances were highly praised, so I expected quite a bit out of them, and wasn't disappointed. They both gave quality, detailed and devoted performances. However, as the movie went along, I became more interested in a few supporting characters. Like Paul Giamatti, who obviously was fantastic, (when is he ever not) had a great character to delve into as Mrs. Travers' driver. By the end of the movie he is undoubtedly the most endearing character, and rubbed off on the grumpy Travers a little too.

I also enjoyed B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the brothers Robert and Richard Sherman who wrote the music for the film. Their endeavors to please both Disney and Travers (mostly without even knowing what is was Travers actually wanted) were very amusing. I applaud their efforts, even if in reality they had half as much trouble as the movie depicted, because the results, as we know, are now iconic.

Behold: the creators of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Of course we all know what happens -- we've all seen the result. And very few can deny it's a wonderful result. Mary Poppins is popular today because of Disney and the magic his team worked. We feel for Mrs. Travers argues to keep the film as she wants it, but at the same time we are not nearly as attached to her book as she is; all we want is for her to give in so those poor people can just make that wonderful childhood movie. Methinks the lady doth protest too much -- her desperate arguments and revealing flashbacks are certainly dramatic, but there was too much of it, and I was having so much fun enjoying the lighthearted "behind the scenes" moments that whenever it turned serious, I just wished it would go back to being fun and stay that way.

Saving Mr. Banks has plenty of sweet, sentimental insights into the mind and past of the creator of Mary Poppins -- all sprinkled with a little pixie dust -- but there's just not enough magic here to make anyone reach for this film instead of the one it celebrates. And I suppose that's how it should be.


  1. As a writer myself, albeit one without a tragic childhood or a beloved series of children's books under my belt, I found her dedication to championing her characters quite understandable. I love some of the characters I've created very fiercely, and I don't want anyone messing with them.

    When you sell your novel to be made into a movie, you have to accept that it's going to change, and if you're not willing for those changes to be made, don't sell. A story has to be translated between mediums, and even if you direct and produce and star in an adaptation of your own novel, things will have to change. Which Travers eventually came to understand, thank goodness. So I understood her reluctance, but I also understood where the filmmakers were coming from. The conflict between them engrossed me, even though I knew that obviously, in the end, they made the movie. The fact that I could be so swept up in the story that I would periodically forget the movie did get made was, I think, a testament to the actors and filmmakers here.

    Have you ever read the Mary Poppins books? They are dark and weird and sometimes disturbing. Not much at all like the movie. I can understand why she would be apprehensive and aghast.

    I'm sorry you didn't like it better! I liked it a lot, and am eager to see it again on DVD with my mom in a couple of weeks.

    Oh, and the flashbacks were to more of a 1910-ish era Australia -- she was born in 1899.

    1. Oh, yes, I definitely understand the reluctance that must come with selling the rights to a story you wrote. Especially if you're selling to Disney and don't want your story Disneyified! But since most of the people who'd watch this are more attached to the movie than the book, it seems like the best way to tell the story would be concentrating more on the joyous part of making Mary Poppins, or giving us the whole truth and risking us changing our minds about liking the Disney version and siding with the author.

      Unless, of course, they just wanted to make it all more dramatic and sentimental and then give us a sweet conclusion. Unfortunately I didn't take to it, I think because I knew a lot of ways the truth was changed, and it made me feel as if I was being cheated out of a pretty interesting true story for a sweet and cute work of fiction that's called a true story. Like, she actually sold the rights before she went out to LA to oversee the work, so she never really had a say about anything, and no one tried to cater to her. And she absolutely hated the finished product -- she wasn't moved at all by the deeper symbolism of Mr. Banks' redemption. She really couldn't abide those cartoons. :P

      I haven't read the books, but I have heard that. And I definitely understand that -- completely. I'm critiquing the character, not at all the real person.

      I did like it (3 stars in my family means you enjoyed it, but probably won't ever care to see it again, and it was a poster-child 3) but I probably would have liked it more if they'd not sugarcoated, or, well, Disneyified it so much. But that's me. I'm glad you liked it so much more! I hope you enjoy it just as much the second time, and thanks for the correction. :)

    2. Perhaps a big difference in our reactions is that I actually didn't know anything about how Mary Poppins got made before seeing the movie, and only did a bit of superficial research afterward to piece together what was and wasn't fictionalized.

  2. There were many times this movie could have easily been sappy and manipulative, but it took the high-road. Eventually though, it got me tearing-up, as much as I hate to admit it. Good review Sarah.

    1. I found it sappy and manipulative, but only occasionally, and mildly. It struck the right balance for it's type of movie, that for sure. Thanks!

  3. Really enjoyed this one. Sorry it wasn't your cup of tea, Sarah. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yeah, for me the tea was room-temperature, and had too many lumps of sugar. ;) Hehe. But I'm glad you liked it!