By Michael S. Goldberger
Because director John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” springs from Disney, and is about the legendary impresario’s attempts to secure the rights to P.L. Travers’s “Mary Poppins,” I expected a frothy evening at the Bijou. But the barely suppressed tears that welled in my eyes as the biographical significance of her classical children’s fable unfolded informed I was mistaken, and that’s a good thing.
It is an intelligently cathartic exercise, delving into the author’s psyche and amusingly creating a responsible monograph on the trials and tribulations of adapting literature to film. There is confrontation, synergy and life-affirming, sparks-flying emotion…all coalescing into what might be billed as the Great Battle of Artistic Difference.
In this corner, representing the New World, Walt Disney, the boy from Missouri who made good by entertaining children on a colorful and grandiose scale the likes of which had never been seen before. In the other corner, Mrs. P.L. Travers (nee Helen Goff), transplanted Aussie-Brit, traditionalist par excellence and defender of the sacred secret that lies at the heart of her beloved belles-lettres.
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as the worthy adversaries, indefatigable combatants, each certain that their raison d’etre is the right one, thrust and parry with entertaining aplomb. Hanks imbues his Disney with a homespun, avuncular quality that nonetheless never belies the fact that there’s an innovative genius at work here.
His philosophical antithesis, as conservative as he is pioneering, Miss Thompson’s author has little patience or respect for what she views as an ostentatious, money-making kingdom of bad taste. She likes to take tea and preserve things as they are. However, just as necessity is the mother of invention, money is often the spur to artistic compromise. Book sales and their resultant royalties have dried up, and there, just across an ocean and a continent, a man with a mouse beckons with a pen and a big bag of American dollars.
Thanks to fine performances and director Hancock’s astute hand, the dichotomy, although drawn in the usual, formulaic fashion, is complemented by excellent side business and some searing flashbacks detailing the source of Mrs. Travers’s inspiration.
There’s some pretty tough stuff here as little Helen Goff, not unlike Francie, the future authoress in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), has the tragically bittersweet fate of adoring a father for whom the stars of health and commerce can never quite align. If it doesn’t cause you a reflection or two about your own Dad, I’d check my pulse.
Of course, scrutinizing Mr. Hanks’s portrayal, suspecting that the studio would only portray its namesake in the most positive of lights despite assurances to the contrary, we are naturally a tad on guard. But then, how can you not admire the fellow who made sure all your childhood fantasies were beautifully exacted in living color, and set to music in the bargain? Even if he had only made “Lady and the Tramp” (1955), I’d be indebted.
Conversely, since only the literary scholars among us will arrive at the Bijou armed with much information about the curmudgeonly author, there is less circumspection of Miss Thompson’s interpretation. On first blush she is that crazy, proper British nanny you never had…the one with a heart of gold just one smidgen of a scratch below the starchy surface. So we grant her dispensation even before we learn the root cause of her dyspeptic intolerance for any things or ideas outside of her provincial purview.
Yeah, we like ‘em both. Thus, we are put in the emotional position of being betwixt and between, rooting for both dipoles to win. While we know that est modus in rebus (there is a mean to all things), the adult in us fears that reality too often precludes happy endings.
So you see, this job calls for the child in us to intercede. As the story flits back and forth from 1906 Australia to 1961 Hollywood, Mrs. Travers reflects and Mr. Disney, who eventually learns her true identity, interpolates the deep sorrow troubling her soul —-essentially the cause of her adamant resistance. To wit, his inner child must talk to her inner child. Perhaps our Congress, while certainly petulant, might want to try this more altruistic approach to conciliation.
Innovatively divergent from your typical Hollywood backstory, this is smart and witty, but perhaps too sad in parts for the under 13 crowd who would be barred from seeing it without an adult anyway. And, as it is cerebral and methodically paced, those who haven’t yet been weaned from the summer’s action flicks might be disappointed to find that “Saving Mr. Banks” has, alas, nothing to do with hostages and S.W.A.T. teams.
“Saving Mr. Banks,” rated PG-13, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by John Lee Hancock and stars Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks and Annie Rose Buckley. Running time: 125 minutes