Saving Mr. Banks Has Disney Magic

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers

It’s hard to live in southern California and not be touched by the magic of Walt Disney. It’s pretty much everywhere (even though I, myself, have never been to any Disneyland). The magic of Disney (whatever Walt’s own personal failings) is really the magic of the movies, which in Los Angeles is all around us.

Also, the behind the scenes workings of filmmaking is our daily life here. We know, for example, that Walt Disney’s cough was so strong, you always knew he was coming before he got there. (In fact, he died of lung cancer in the period shortly after this particular movie took place.)

What is kind of shocking (though really welcome) is that over the years, Disney’s image is so whitewashed that you never (or rarely) see any images of him drinking or smoking, both of which he certainly did. I applaud the filmmakers, and even moreso Walt Disney Pictures, which is presenting this movie, for showing Walt’s truth, finally.

That part was nice. All of the Disney elements were wonderful, a joy to behold, as with most Disney stuff.

What makes this particular show a tough sell is the rest of it.

Mind you, I saw it with a roomful of screenwriters in Hollywood, who pitch their trade (or dream of pitching their trade) every day. They know what is allowed and what isn’t. (One must know the Hollywood code to live here, and even moreso to work here.)

Bradley Whitford welcomes Emma Thompson to Disney

Bradley Whitford welcomes Emma Thompson to Disney

So it’s almost comical to watch a movie about, essentially, a crotchety writer who doesn’t want to sell the rights to her book. She makes herself the biggest pain in the butt you can imagine, and then some (all of this was really, in fact, TONED DOWN for the movie!).  For example, at one point, she huffs to Mr. Disney, “There will be no RED in this movie.” Done. No color red, at all. WHAT?

What is really missing from the script, actually, is any pushback from Disney, and I know there had to be some. Someone somewhere saying, this broad’s crazy! There is only eyerolling and some asides, but they basically go along with her nuttiness. This entire movie, btw, would never fly today.

Walt Disney actually pursued her for 20 years. TWENTY YEARS. Can you imagine? I cannot.

However, I, like most, have a magical remembrance of the wonder that was “Mary Poppins” that came of this struggle. Obviously old Walt knew what he was doing.

Tom Hanks (as Walt Disney) and Emma Thompson (as P.L. Travers) are extraordinary to watch on screen. The fact that this crotchety old bitch is made not only watchable, but at moments even likeable, is such a credit to Ms. Thompson’s acting that she is guaranteed an Oscar nomination for this.

It was a joy to see some singing and dancing from Bradley Whitford (the gruff Josh in “The West Wing”), BJ Novak (“The Office”) and Jason Schwartzman (many things, but most recently his own band, Coconut Records) are great as the Sherman brothers, who wrote the memorable songs for “Mary Poppins.” Melanie Paxson is quite wonderful, too.

BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman play a pair of songwriting brothers.

BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman play a pair of songwriting brothers.

Paul Giamatti makes the most of P.L.’s driver, adding some much-needed heart and warmth.

What is kind of shocking when one goes to a movie expecting the backstory of the making of “Mary Poppins” is that all of the above is only half the movie. And you might think, if you’ve seen the previews, where it mentions her father, that the other half takes place in jolly old England, and that her lovely dad was a chimney sweep. Nope.

Down to the wilds of Australia we go. That’s both what’s jarring and surprising, and exquisite and wonderful about this movie. Aside from the amazing acting, I credit the director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) and the editor Mark Livolsi for creating luminous lush joyous sequences.

Colin Farrell plays the girl’s dad, and does a lot with the role. Rachel Griffiths, as you may’ve already seen in the previews, plays the person that Mary Poppins is based on, although it’s not totally clear who she is in real life. (The girl’s mother’s sister? Some Australian governess?)

As a film experience, I do recommend “Saving Mr. Banks.” This you should know though. She finally caved on selling the rights because she needed the money. After all this folderol she put everyone through, she ended up hating the movie so much that she never let anyone else adapt anything of hers again. She died not speaking to these people ever again, bitter and alone.

Whereas Walt created, as he said he would, a joy for generations. In fact, I urge you to go watch “Mary Poppins” again. Remember too, that the landmark sequence that this woman complained about so much (the penguins and the animation) was ground-breaking for its time (to have live action and animation in the same sequence). Walt was busy making history and making children smile while this woman was bitching and complaining. I’d say, over the long haul, Walt won. The magic always wins.

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Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

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