B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman Brothers, in Saving Mr. Banks
Mary Poppins is one of my favorite movies, both when I was a child and now to share with my kids. Miss Ionarts, in particular, adores it. It may come as a surprise for children to learn that the woman who created the character of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers, refused Disney the rights to Mary Poppins for years. Eventually, it was the whiff of green, the Mouse's deep pockets, that changed Travers's mind. Little surprise, there -- when Salvador Dalí worked for Disney, on an unrealized project called Destino, André Breton excommunicated Dalí from the circle of the surrealist elect, rearranging the letters in Dalí's name to make the anagram Avida Dollars (hungry for dollars). The recent film Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of the financial transaction between Disney and Travers in a benign and rather charming way. Not coincidentally, it was bankrolled by Disney.
The movie's charm is largely due to the stiflingly proper, stiff-lipped performance of Emma Thompson as the Disney-hating author. She frowns at the sun and palm trees of California, stares down her smiling driver (an open-faced Paul Giamatti), spars cleverly with Walt Disney himself (a sure-footed but ultimately rather plain, even sanitized performance by Tom Hanks). Insisting that she have the last word on the screenplay adaptation, most of which is already developed and not to her liking, Thomson's Travers drives the studio's screenwriter (an exasperated Bradley Whitford) and musicians crazy with her nitpicking disapproval. The reimagining of how the movie's iconic songs came into being offers some of the best scenes, with composer-lyricist team Richard and Robert Sherman (played endearingly by Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak) -- who also wrote the songs for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (another Ionarts favorite), The Jungle Book, and The Aristocats -- working things out at the piano.
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What Disney gradually unravels is that Travers sees the characters in her books as family because they were inspired by her own childhood, caught between an alcoholic father (played with desperate likeability by Colin Farrell) and an overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson) in rural Australia. It is not a great film -- a nomination for Best Picture from the Academy would be a sign of Disney's clout and no more -- but it is the best yet from director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), who has some credits as a screenwriter, too, including Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The screenplay, by the relatively inexperienced Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, tells the story well, with few slow spots, although ultimately the Nutrasweet content may be overwhelming for some viewers. The film's visit to Disneyland, part of Walt's attempt to seduce Travers out of her integrity, is nothing short of masturbatory.