Daugh­ter in Dis­ney­land

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Films - Ed­die Cock­rell

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.

Sav­ing Mr Banks,

Emma Thomp­son in top; An­nie Rose Buck­ley and Colin Far­rell, above

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