Thoughts on “Saving Mr. Banks”

Since it’s 2014 and I resolved to blog more, I’m going to start with the kind of post I wish I’d written more of last year: thoughts on movies.

I saw “Saving Mr. Banks” yesterday, and while I didn’t LOVE it, I enjoyed it quite a bit – and have enjoyed thinking about it in hindsight even more.

I want to say that I first heard of the movie shortly after the Oscars last year, in some kind of “What Movies Will Contend in 2014” slideshow, but it may have been later in the year. At any rate, I remember reading a positive early review of the film this past October. I had high expectations: It’s got Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, it’s a movie about the movies, Disney made it, and who doesn’t like “Mary Poppins”? It was on my shortlist of movies to see in advance of awards season.

As more reviews came out, my expectations dulled – it seemed like more of a kids’ movie, and I wasn’t sure I’d like the backstory about P.L. Travers’ childhood in Australia, which the film used to explain the inspiration behind the Mary Poppins character.

We ultimately know how “Saving Mr. Banks” ends, because “Mary Poppins” is an actual movie we all watched as kids. But “Saving Mr. Banks” makes you think for awhile that there’s no possible way P.L. Travers will hand Disney the rights to turn her book into a movie. That’s what I liked least about this film – it drags on a little with scenes showing how much she resents what Disney is trying to do with the story. And, while I ended up liking the use of flashbacks to her childhood, I thought those were also a little repetitive. The movie turned to flashbacks when something P.L. Travers encountered during her trip to Los Angeles reminded her of an event from childhood. They weren’t forced attempts at moving the story along, which I appreciated. Plus, I thought Colin Farrell was quite good as her father.

Many of the scenes depicting the author’s objections to Disney’s plan for a film adaptation occurred in a rehearsal room. Travers sat around a table with songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman and screenwriter Don DaGradi, listening to and summarily shouting down their ideas. This creative trio – with Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman brothers and Bradley Whitford (!) as DaGradi – became my favorite part of the film. Here are three guys who probably expected Travers to come in and fawn over all their brilliant songs and scripts. But even when her dismissiveness annoyed them to the core, they kept at it and found a way to please her.

And when they finally did please her, with the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” it was wonderful. For those few minutes, as the Shermans, DaGradi and Walt’s secretary perform the number for her, I was smiling wide and absolutely loving the film. The Shermans and DaGradi are just so happy – and probably relieved – to se P.L. Travers happy. Jason Schwartzman, who I’d say played my favorite character in the film, was especially wonderful it in that scene. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this video is taken down soon for some copyright violation, but here’s the scene I’m talking about.)

But really, let’s all have a good laugh at Josh Lyman singing and dancing to songs from Mary Poppins! Oh, it just kills me. Bradley Whitford didn’t make or break this movie for me, but every time he was on screen, I thought to myself, “This is the man who delivered the ‘bring me the finest muffins and bagels’ speech.” Same guy.

My final thought: Seeing it with a full theater audience provided an interesting commentary on how central Disney movies have been to American entertainment. You know the line, “Close your mouth please, Michael, we are not a codfish,” from “Mary Poppins”? There’s a line in a flashback scene that obviously hints at it, and everyone in the theater laughed knowingly. Disney can make “Saving Mr. Banks” so meta because everyone’s already seen and loved “Mary Poppins.” This movie seemed self-indulgent at times, but I didn’t care because I was entertained. Disney knows how to entertain pretty well.

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