Friday, December 27, 2013

The Disney Treatment: Saving Mr. Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
The idea of a movie about Walt Disney persuading the English author P.L. (Pamela) Travers to let him adapt Mary Poppins to the screen is so tantalizing that you keep rooting for Saving Mr. Banks to work, long past the point where you can see it isn’t going to. Disney had been wooing Travers for twenty years before he finally got her to come to Los Angeles to collaborate with the screenwriter he’d chosen, Don DaGradi, and the songwriting Sherman brothers. But she kept putting off signing the contract, and her demands were plentiful and persnickety. In Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay, Travers (Emma Thompson) only agrees to make the trip because she hasn’t managed to write anything in years, and her agent convinces her that she badly needs the money. And still she arrives in Hollywood apparently determined that nothing Disney (Tom Hanks) can promise her will challenge her notion that he and his team are going to turn her 1934 children’s classic – a childhood favorite of Disney’s daughters – into something cutesy, sentimental and blandly commercialized.

The collaboration is an uphill battle for Disney, DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Shermans (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), until he discovers what the script’s cross-cutting between past and present has been showing us all along: that her book, about a London family that hires a stern but magical nanny to take care of its children, is actually an enchanted transformation of her own childhood circumstances, living in Australian farm country, and that she created Mary Poppins to accomplish what her family’s efficient, no-nonsense nanny (Rachel Griffiths) was unable to – save her alcoholic, ne’er-do-well banker father, Travis Goff (Colin Farrell), whose name she later appropriated. The novel Mary Poppins, whose charm is undiminished more than three-quarters of a century after it was written, focuses entirely on the adventures the title character leads Jane and Michael Banks on; the story of the inaccessible workaholic papa, George Banks, whom she needs to rescue (by bringing him closer to his kids and helping him to rearrange his priorities) is entirely an invention of the Disney musical. In Saving Mr. Banks, the more the script deals with the metamorphosis of the father, the more the project engages Pamela Travers.

Coral Browne in Dreamchild
In both structure and subject matter the film is reminiscent of the 1985 Dreamchild, which Dennis Potter wrote and Gavin Millar directed. Dreamchild brings the octogenarian Alice Hargreaves (Coral Browne), who as a child inspired the title character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, to New York in 1932, on the occasion of the author’s centenary, to deliver a speech at an event in his honor at Columbia University. Mrs. Hargreaves, like Travers, is ornery and resistant. A relic of the Victorian age in which she grew up, she finds the American reporters who call her Alice unspeakably rude (Travers is similarly appalled at the Yankee penchant for referring to strangers by their first names) and she resents being viewed as an embodiment of a writer’s imaginary tale. But, unnervingly, the transatlantic journey has begun to uncover childhood memories – memories of her relationship with the Reverend Charles Dodgson (Ian Holm), as she knew Carroll, and her treatment of him – that she has long repressed. Dreamchild is the story of Mrs. Hargreaves’s reconciliation with her past, just as Saving Mr. Banks is Pamela’s reconciliation with her tragic childhood.

The flashback scenes, with the serious-faced young actress Annie Rose Buckley as the child – known as Ginty – who would grow into Travers, are fairly effective, and Farrell turns in a solid performance as the charming failure Goff, whom Ginty loves desperately but whose drunken unreliability has caused him to lose one job and forced the family to relocate in the remotest part of Australia reachable by railway. It’s in the Hollywood scenes that the movie falters, despite the best efforts of the hard-working actors. The problem is in both the writing and John Lee Hancock’s direction, which keep the story soft and cozy, safely within the Disney purview. Disney, of course, produced the picture. Tom Hanks makes a noble stab at playing Disney, and he’s not a bad casting choice, but the character as written is a warm, wise, benevolent, avuncular fellow; he could have been dreamed up by the studio’s publicity department. His obstinacy about getting hold of Mary Poppins comes out of his love of the material and a vow he made years ago to his daughters to make a movie of it, not commercial shrewdness or an unwillingness to abandon the quest to get whatever he wants because no one says no to Walt Disney. The only wrinkle in his personality is his smoking (which the movie could hardly have omitted, since it eventually killed him), and he’s apologetic about that. So Pamela’s implacability in the face of his enthusiasm and generosity has to be psychologically motivated, and she’s so curmudgeonly that, the way the picture is constructed, you lose patience with her. Even the California landscape and the sunshine are lost on her. Emma Thompson is the ideal choice for Travers, but she’s stuck playing her like a female Lionel Barrymore who ruins everyone’s day until Disney can work out how to get under her leathery skin. Evidently Travers really was impossible during the negotiations about the screenplay; behind the end credits we get to hear portions of the reel-to-reel tape of her meetings with DaGradi and the Shermans, and her immovability about the smallest items (like the type of measuring stick Mary Poppins uses on the Banks children) makes you chuckle in amazement. But whereas in Dreamchild Coral Browne showed us the terror (of death and of the painful memories she’d buried for so long) underneath Mrs. Hargreaves’s steely resolve, the script doesn’t give Thompson the chance to build that kind of complex character. Instead what she gets are soft-sell episodes in which some fuzzy detail penetrates Pamela’s wall of resistance, like the Shermans’ writing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” for Mr. Banks to sing to Jane and Michael – she gets so caught up in the swing of the tune that she dances around the room – or her learning that the daughter of her kind, patient driver (Paul Giamatti, in a dreadful role) suffers from polio.

B.J. Novak & Jason Schwartzman
No doubt it was too much to ask that Disney could have put out a movie on this subject that presented Travers’s objections to the musical in any kind of balanced way. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone who worked on Saving Mr. Banks that the author’s complaints about the script and the score – about the entire Disney gestalt – might have some merit. But the movie of Mary Poppins isn’t exactly The Wizard of Oz or Oliver! or even Newsies (hands down the best of the Disney musicals, in my opinion). It has some period charm, and the Sherman brothers’ score isn’t too bad (“Feed the Birds” is lovely); there’s a marvelous dance by the chimney sweeps, Dick Van Dyke is pretty much irresistible as Bert despite his appalling Cockney accent, and Ed Wynn is a delight in his scene as Mary Poppins’s airborne Uncle Albert, who takes tea with his guests just below ceiling level. But the scenes between the children and their father (David Tomlinson, who isn’t very good) overdose on their Kodak-snap cute faces. And you just can’t get around Julie Andrews, whose acting bears the same relationship to genuine emotion that margarine bears to butter. It seems reasonable to imagine that the author of the Mary Poppins books might not be wild about abandoning them to the Disney sensibility, which hasn’t changed significantly through the years. Look at Frozen, this season’s animated Disney musical – which purports to be based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” but has almost no resemblance to it – with its bland, overproduced songs and generically feisty heroine and cardboard-cut-out romantic hero. P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins is a world away from the movie version; it doesn’t take a childhood trauma to explain why she might turn down her nose at the prospect. The real story, the one Saving Mr. Banks carefully skirts, is about how Disney seduced her, not about how he liberated her from her demons.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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