Film Review: Saving Mr. Banks
When I first saw the trailer for Saving Mr. Banks, I was very intrigued. I had loved Mary Poppins for more years than I care to admit, and to watch a film that provides an insight into how Mary Poppins came to be was well worth my time. It is a rare day indeed that I will pay the piper and go to a theater to watch a movie, so I waited until it became available to purchase on DVD. I then sat my little self down and wrote a letter to Santa Clause and lo and behold: I opened it on Christmas morn.
Thank you Santa!
Most people know Mary Poppins, that Practically Perfect In Every Way nanny in the film of the same name, but how many know she was a book first? Or that her author, one P. L. Travers was a person with a history such as the one portrayed in the film Saving Mr. Banks? I for one did not, I assure you. But I am getting slightly ahead of myself.
The proper place to begin is the beginning, so here we go. I thought, when I saw the first trailer, that Saving Mr. Banks was about saving the character Mr. Banks from the film Mary Poppins, not saving the inspiration behind the character Mr. Banks. Confused?
Well, Mr. Banks the character turns out to be someone close to the author herself. I do not want to give it away here, so please read on and see what other insights I can offer to you.
Tom Hanks supplies another wonderful performance in the film, projecting warmth as Walt Disney. Emma Thompson is superb in the slightly acerbic role as Mrs. P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins. Paul Giamatti fills a small but critical role that you simply must see. The rest of the cast is perfect and you will greatly enjoy this film.
The film opens with words that should be familiar to the viewer: I leave it to you to watch, listen, and remember. We see a young girl (P. L. herself) and her father. As the film moves along we determine that her father is dearly loved by the girl, perhaps even idolized a bit. It is obvious he loves her and his family but we learn there is something amiss here. The script moves effortlessly between the years 1906 and 1961, with P. L. at its center.
In 1961, the author is without means, as her funds have shriveled to nothing due to the royalties having run out on the book Mary Poppins. She has not followed her success with another book and her editor/agent encourages her to accept the offer Walt Disney has put to her to make the book into a movie. Disney had promised his daughter some twenty years ago that he would make it but thus far, he has not been able to persuade Travers to accept and sign off on the contract. She finally accepts that she must go to California and see if they can come to an understanding.
There she meets her driver for the duration, played by Giammatti. It is he, with his kindness and continued good humor that eventually breaks through the barrier, finally gaining a smile and grudging respect.
Travers meets with Disney and his team, insisting every work session be taped to ensure their agreement is being upheld. If she was a man, I would call her curmudgeonly, but as she is a woman, I hesitate to use the word(s) that come to mind. Basically, she is incapable to finding humor in anything, or of being anything but crisply proper and uhmm, uptight. Yes, definitely, she is uptight.
Throughout the film she continually downplays every song that came to be beloved, every character that made the film, every scene that filled the movie with joy and sadness. As the film progresses, we the viewer find moments that supply an insight into the author, why she is the way she is and why her characters are who they are. Such as:
In the beginning, the astute viewer will hear, once, the name Katie Nana, which just happens to be one of the house servants in the movie Mary Poppins. One will also hear, again once, Uncle Albert and a reference to laughing which an aficionado of Mary Poppins will remember is a character in Mary Poppins as well. We also find why, as the movie progresses, just how big an impact her father had on her life.
One portion that I particularly enjoyed, which continues throughout, is the gentlemen who come up with the songs. It was wonderful to hear how they arrived at some of the songs, what the inspiration for them was. In addition, we hear the thought which goes into making a book into a film, and all the issues which plague it when the author has the power to choose what is in and what is out. The struggles between the two parties is intriguing, to say the least. On one side is the team doing its best to influence the author in the direction they feel the movie needs to go, while the other side has the author, holding on to her creation, and once letting it slip that Mary Poppins and the Banks family is, in fact, family. It is at that point the viewer begins to see just how deeply the story lies, and why the author is clinging so tightly to her story.
At one point, after a particularly difficult day at Disney Studios, Travers storms out and finds herself seated on the grass outside, building something from twigs and leaves as she often did as a child. Paul Giamatti, as Ralph the Limo Driver, sees her and sits down with her. It is this scene which is the moment we begin to see the cracks in the armor as Ralph offers insight into his character and shares it with Travers. They bond to a degree, and from that point on a change, an ever so slight change, begins.
Another moment that I truly loved was when the song writers act out, then sing the finale before her. Let's Go Fly A Kite finally, FINALLY gets through her walls and she taps her toes, first one then both, and she is asked to dance, She accepts and it begins. The cast did a masterful job in this scene showing the halting manner she lets go and the realization by one of the team in a moment that she is ready to let go. He asks, she accepts, and everything is changed from that point on.
But even then, all is not well. When Travers finds there is to be animation in the film, she storms out once more, this time all the way back to England. Walt Disney then finds, just after she departed, a clue as to just what is truly bothering her and he flies to England to meet with her once more.
It is this meeting, when he bares his soul in a story about his childhood in Kansas City that we can see on her face just how deeply this affects her. The walls come down, and Mary Poppins the film is ready to finish.
I was unaware that Disney was from KC, but it is nice to know that he is, and that he comes from a world of hard knocks himself.
In the end she attends the premiere and we watch as the emotions cross her face time and again while we listen to the film playing in the background, never seeing it just knowing what is occurring because we know the film by heart. And I will admit that as she cries at the finale I shed a tear or twenty myself for her character because she was a real person, experiencing this herself and once more I must say Emma Thompson is simply superb in her portrayal of the person.
One final note: I noticed that Emma speaks a great deal like Julie Andrews herself when she plays Mary Poppins. Coincidence? I couldn't say.
Keep your eyes and ears open and aware to be sure you don't miss the clues in the film as to the why and who the inspirations are and how they find their way into Mary Poppins the book/film. They are many and varied. Where the talking umbrella came from; was there a real Mary Poppins; just who did Mary Poppins come to save anyway? And watch for the pears throughout the film: there is a reason why P. L. throws them out when she first arrives in her hotel room.
All in all, this is a splendid example of why we go to the movies. We learn a little about others, we are entertained (without explosions, sex, foul language, loud music, computer generated images or any of the other things that seem to make up 99.999999% of the films out there today) and in particular, it is intelligent. We see that far to little today, and I for one would much rather see a film that is smart, witty, funny, gets you involved with the characters and is a heartwarming remembrance to our youth than another slasher film, or something that relies on booms or explosions or computers to get you there. I will place it high on my personal list of favorites, and I encourage you to give it a view; chances are you will love it as well.