Saving Mr. Banks

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This is one of those rare movies that has enough layers to demand re-watching at different points in your life or when in different moods. The story of the creation and filming of Mary Poppins tackles concepts as diverse as art creation, art ownership, entertainment, abuse, and child rearing (direct and by proxy). It even takes on the more specific discussion around Disney, the man and the industry, and their approaches to all of the above. It risked ruining the magic of its subject, but instead made it even more intriguing and magical, and quietly has you consider many other subjects.

Mary Poppins was my first or second movie growing up. Though I don’t recall it, apparently I was terrified of the flying nanny. However, it remains one of my favorite films, somehow always effecting me with tears and joy in only a few bars of music. It was Disney at its best before it devolved into the teeth-rotting, manipulative sweetness that plagued it for decades.

That would be my other up front admission. As you may have noticed from my previous post on Frozen, Disney and I don’t get along. I’m closer to Travers’ character in belief than I’d like to admit, though I do believe in entertainment. It is just that I also like to have enough reality to balance it… especially when creating something for children. Entire generations have forgotten that the Grimm’s Faery Tales were teaching stories, full of blood and death as well as happy endings. Those growing up solely on light-and-happy, evil-never-triumphs tales, have been convinced things will always work out, that the world is good, and that a prince will always come along and save the girl (she need do nothing but wait and be pretty). It isn’t a lesson that lends itself to a healthy adulthood when reality comes slamming those kids in the face. Balance in those lessons prepares people for the world–which doesn’t mean you can’t have some laughs and joy along the way. It also makes for better, more-engaging stories if you can’t always be sure what will happen or how.  Enough said.

Saving Mr. Banks mirrors the structure and story of Poppins in clever and engaging ways, while revealing the story behind the story. At points, the choices border on brilliance. Based on true and documented events (presented with license, of course) we see how Walt Disney, the man, got the author to allow him to create the magic and how Travers got him to understand the real heart of the story. What was birthed was an enduring classic of joy and loss and hope. In other words, a movie about growing up and finding what is important in your world. It isn’t always what you think.

Thompson (Beautiful Creatures) and Hanks (Cloud Atlas) play beautifully together. The subtlety of each actor reveals deep truths and humanity at unexpected times.  To help that along, the story splits between past and present to show us the genesis.

In the present, Schwartzman (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Novak (Inglourious Basterds) as the composer and lyricist Sherman brothers and Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) as screenwriter DaGradi give us a glimpse into the process of creating a film, albeit quite sanitized and smoothed out. And Giamatti (John Dies at the End) provides additional perspective, if a bit forced.

In the past, Farrell (Dead Man Down) proves he can really act and do well. If Farrell could ever figure out how to put that power to being able to be the center of a film, he really could break out. Along with Farrell, Wilson (The Lone Ranger) and new-comer, Buckley, give us the foundation of Travers’ trevails. In addition, Griffiths (Brothers & Sisters) drops in for an essential piece of the puzzle.

There are other, wonderful, smaller performances throughout, but they are primarily window-dressing and color. There isn’t a bad moment in the film, which despite being over 2 hours long, is never boring. The trick is that you know where it ends, otherwise the lead-up would be painful and frustrating rather than interesting and amusing. Minus the success of Poppins, it would just be a tale of artistic damage and hubris overcome by catharsis. Like Poppins, however, it is so much more than that.

It isn’t just history that expands this film, it is the efforts of the creative team that brought it to screen. An unlikely pair of TV writers tackled this adaptation. Marcel (Terra Nova, [streamed]) and Smith (Prisoner: Cell Block H) have neither the names nor the cv.s that would suggest they could create such a complicated and deep story. The results here will definitely get them noticed. On the other hand, director Hancock (The Rookie, The Blind Side) has a track record of complex stories with heart and he delivers it here again with a sure hand.

While there had been a lot of Oscar buzz around the film when it released at the end of 2013, it isn’t that kind of film. It is fascinating, heart-warming, enlightening, and empowering, but somehow it isn’t one of those you give a statuette to, though Adapted Screenplay would not have been remiss in this case. As I said, ever so many paragraphs before, this is a film you will come back to at different points in your life and see and respond to in new ways. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did… honestly I expected a whitewash of the events and people. Fortunately, it remained very human, even if it did Spackle over some of the cracks. See it, perhaps even see it as a double-feature with Poppins if you haven’t seen that recently. It will be a night well spent. And then, maybe even pick up some of the books.

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