Daughter in Disneyland
FILMS about the making of films are a special treat. Preston Sturges’s 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels has a great deal to say about the mindset of the early Hollywood mogul, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) is fundamentally about striving to capture the magic of movies — albeit painfully bad ones — and even last year’s two dramatic films about Alfred Hitchcock ( The Girl and Hitchcock), flawed as they were, came alive during the re-created on-set sequences during the making of The Birds and Psycho.
There’s nary a soundstage in sight in John Lee Hancock’s warm-hearted dramatic comedy Saving Mr Banks, which is about a pivotal fortnight during the gestation of the beloved 1964 musical Mary Poppins in which the jolly Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) attempts to wheedle the rights to the character from dyspeptic Australian-born, London-based author PL Travers (Emma Thompson).
Rather, the film takes as its twin themes the joy of creation in the present and the deleterious effects of trauma from the past on one’s life and, in this case, the work of Travers (real name: Helen Lyndon Goff).
So those hoping to see a re-creation of the Cherry Tree Lane set or the manic chimneysweep dance or the dancing penguins have misplaced expectations. The strength of Saving Mr Banks comes from the interplay, often comic, between Hanks and Thompson, as well as the deft balance of regret and optimism achieved by Australian screenwriter Sue Smith and British co-writer Kelly Marcel.
Twenty years after his daughters persuade him to make a film version of Travers’s series of books about the magical nanny Mary Poppins, Disney is still waiting for Travers to make up her mind. On the advice of her accountant, who warns her she’s low on funds, Travers reluctantly agrees to spend two weeks in southern California for meetings at the Walt Disney Studios with Disney, co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composer-lyricist siblings Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak, respectively), who have been tasked with writing songs for the proposed film.
The author proves herself to be a hostile and inflexible collaborator. She hates being called Pamela, dislikes Dick Van Dyke for the part of chimneysweep Bert, flatly refuses the idea of songs or animation in the film and even insists the colour red be struck from the movie.
Intercut with these sequences are flashbacks: Travers’s troubled memories of growing up in Maryborough, Queensland, in the early 20th century. Her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), is a good-hearted banker and doting dad with a weakness for alcohol that short-circuits his success at every turn and ruins his family.
Gradually, the parallels and connections between what happened to Travers the girl and the work and world view of Travers the bitter writer of beloved books for children is revealed. The monologue in which Disney equates both of their fathers with George Banks, the imperious father with a heart of gold played by David Tomlinson in Mary Poppins, is the second late-reel acting tour-deforce for Hanks this year, following his sick bay meltdown at the end of Captain Phillips.
Also on hand is Paul Giamatti as Travers’s friendly, long-suffering chauffeur Ralph. Rebuffed throughout the film, he finally succeeds in drawing a less gruff woman out of the author, if only fleetingly.
Other than an all-too-brief tour of Disneyland, the film’s emotional high point may well be when the Shermans, finishing up one of the film’s songs, draw the suddenly smiling author into an exuberant recitation of Let’s Go Fly a Kite. These rehearsal scenes splendidly convey the elusive spark of inspiration and the giddy elation when it ignites.
Though an American production, Saving Mr Banks had its genesis in Australia. In 2002, filmmaker Ian Collie of Essential Media and Entertainment made a documentary on Travers called The Shadow of Mary Poppins. Convinced her story had the makings of a compelling dramatic feature, he brought in veteran television writer and producer Smith ( Peaches) to do a first draft.
That, in turn, ended up on the desk of British producer Alison Owen ( Elizabeth), whom Collie had met through Australia-based Hopscotch head Troy Lum, who shares an executive producer credit here with Hopscotch Features partner Andrew Mason. She summoned Marcel, who moved the script away from a straight biopic and played up the balance between past and present.
As the first dramatic incarnation of Disney, the driven yet beloved showman and entertainment visionary, Hanks’s gentle midwestern accent (Disney was born in Chicago and reared in rural Missouri and Kansas City) gives the character just enough folksiness without becoming maudlin.
Only three Hollywood movies have been shot on location at Disneyland, and Hanks has been involved with two of them (after Norman Jewison’s first film, the 1962 Damon Runyon adaptation 40 Pounds of Trouble, the second was Hanks’s directing debut, the 1996 early-days-of-rock ’ n’ roll drama That Thing You Do!).
Amusingly, as Disney was a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer and the film is produced by the company that bears his name, there was much debate about whether to show him smoking; in the end, he can be glimpsed returning a cigarette to an ashtray.
Thompson’s clipped line readings manage to be both obnoxious and immensely funny, while Schwartzman, who has his own band when he’s not starring in Wes Anderson movies, has a ball lustily singing the work-inprogress tunes.
Director Hancock, riding a wave of success after the unanticipated popularity of his previous film, The Blind Side, works once again with many of his behind-the-scenes collaborators. John Schwartzman’s crisp photography captures the southern California glow that so annoyed Travers, while Michael Corenblith’s sleek production design re-creates Disney’s office and adjoining rehearsal space with period veracity. (Much of Disneyland and the heart of the studio complex remain unaltered, rendering the location sequences of particular nostalgic interest.) If the best editing is the kind that goes unnoticed, Mark Livolsi’s assembly of the footage shifts gracefully from present to past and back again.
The nay-sayers point to the simplistic Disney and Travers characters created from more complex and difficult real-life individuals. Travers was, by all accounts, bisexual, and the first screenplay draft incorporated a subplot involving the boy she adopted when when was 40. Disney was allied for a time with an anti-communist, anti-Semitic organisation, an affiliation that tainted his post-World War II life and legacy but is rebutted by at least one of his biographers.
Such criticism misses the point of a movie that is as much about tolerance and redemption as it is about filmmaking and writing. There are, perhaps, other, more probing films to be made about one or both of these influential entertainment figures.
Those who stay through the closing credits are treated to authentic audio recordings of Travers’s voice. This is a touching grace note to a film about the trials, tribulations and occasional triumphs of creativity, filmmaking and human interaction in general.
Emma Thompson in top; Annie Rose Buckley and Colin Farrell, above