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December 19, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

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John Lee Hancock - 2013

It may seem uncharacteristic of me to be writing about a mainstream Hollywood movie playing at a multiplex near you, but I was intrigued. Part of it is, as usual for me, an ongoing interest in the backstage stories whether sublime (Contempt or silly (Hollywood Boulevard). I'll even watch those movies of questionable factualness with actors impersonating Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. Also, I had seen Mary Poppins back in the day when it was a relatively new movie. albeit in its run at a theater in a suburb of Chicago. My memories are that I liked the film well enough, and thought it sweet justice that Jack Warner reject Julie Andrews would win the Oscar in the year of My Fair Lady.

As it turns out, there is a bit more to the story than the clash of two egos, two creators of childhood icons. It's also the story of fathers and daughters, mostly that of the young Australian girl, with an alcoholic father, a banker whose own whimsical behavior causes him to be banished to managing a bank in a remote part of the country. There's also the internationally known cartoonist with a magical kingdom named after himself, and a promise to his daughters to make a film out of their favorite book. Also, a chauffeur named Ralph, whose overly cheerful persona masks his own sorrows, with an unexpected connection to the author he serves during her visit to Los Angeles.

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Others will go into greater detail regarding the accuracy of Saving Mr. Banks. A quick glance at the Mary Poppins credits indicates that one of the two screenwriters, Bill Walsh, is nowhere to be seen. Taken on its own terms, the facts ceased being important as the film progressed. What was compelling was seeing the negotiations between two people who initially misunderstand each other based on their respectively well known public images.

I don't don't know if anyone else had noticed it, but at the beginning of the film, the camera pans across a bright sky with high, light clouds. Maybe it's just me, but one cloud, seen in the screengrab above on the right, looked just enough like Mickey Mouse. Maybe it's computer generated, or possible nature was serendipitous that day, but I am certain I saw what may be a nice little visual gag. Or this is just a coincidence of sorts befitting a story about childhood imagination.

Having grown up watching the real Walt Disney on television, I couldn't quite buy into Tom Hank's impersonation. Hank's face is too blocky, the voice too high. Better to accept that the cinematic Walt Disney is a mildly loose version of the real man. By the same token, this is a fictionalized version of Poppins author P. L. Travers. Still, it is enjoyable to see Emma Thompson as an almost perpetually curmudgeon, stiffing bellboys, and sneering at all manifestations of Disneyana. While the film glosses over the unhappiness Travers felt over the changes Disney made to her creation, I think it's safe to assume that the money Travers earned from the cinematic Mary Poppins was a more than sufficient spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine of artistic compromise go down. The film's secret sauce is Paul Giamatti as the chauffeur, Ralph. Maybe the question should be, has there ever been any movie that did not benefit from having Paul Giamatti in the mix? The overly ingratiating and not very bright driver for "Mrs. Travers" (more fiction from the never married writer), Giamatti eventually becomes Saving Mr. Banks' warm and fuzzy heart.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 19, 2013 07:16 AM