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IN SHORT: Mary Poppins from the other side of the lens. A great sit. [Rated PG-13. 126 minutes]
For twenty years, an American filmmaker had been asking for the rights to turn a specific novel by Pamela Lyndon "P.L." Travers into a big screen movie. For nineteen years, the answer had been an absolute "no." In Year Twenty, with not a Pound Sterling to her name, Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) demanded -- and got -- script approval from the film maker, who happened to be one of the most powerful studio heads in Hollywood. "Script Approval" is a fairly self-explanatory phrase. It is rarely given to book authors, especially those with no Hollywood track record or experience in adapting a printed novel into a form fit for the big screen.
It was not a simple process. "Mrs. Travers" -- never Pamela or, as Walt Disney would have it "Pam" -- appears to be, if not desperately unhappy, certainly desperately protective of her character. This makes the adaptation of her book, for which she travels from London to Los Angeles for two weeks of "consultation," nearly impossible. For not only does Travers not want to let her creation be mauled by the hands of "foreigners," which would be us Americans, she certainly does not want it turned in to a cartoon.
The film maker, by the way, was one Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and in his mind , the film was not a cartoon. Not really... Well, maybe just a smidgen of animation -- one musical number involving a bit about "dancing penguins" will be addressed during the course of Saving Mr. Banks. The film, which utilizes recordings of Travers' meetings with Disney's personnel -- she insisted that everything be recorded so that no mistakes would be made -- recreates events that would put Mary Poppins on the road to legendary status.
Travers didn't much like the idea of making "Mary Poppins" into a musical -- even though the original novel contained material that looked like song lyrics to screen writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). Top-of-the-line movie songwriters Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and B.J. Novak) are gung ho for the project and, well, Travers doesn't much care for any of them at all. And the idea that Dick Van Dyke is a major star brings sheer astonishment and immediate dismissal -- "He's not Olivier. Or Gielgud. Get Them!" is pretty much what Travers tells Disney.
What she doesn't tell Disney she could tell to her chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti), who would turn out to be her only confidante. That is, if she were about to lower herself to talk to a servant. Giamatti's talents as a supporting actor are well known, so the film adds a minor subplot about his character's daughter that, whether or not it is true, feels untrue in these PC times.
So, no animation. No songs. No music. As Travers makes plain when she throws an early script out the window, she is positive that Disney has no idea what "Mary Poppins" is really about. And what they don't know . . .
What "Mary Poppins" is really about is revealed in flashback sequences that run beginning to end in Saving Mr. Banks, the story of a young Helen Goff (portrayed as a girl nicknamed "Ginty" by Annie Buckley), who adored her alcoholic father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), a bank manager who couldn't hold a job in the wilds of Australia. Helen's mother (Ruth Wilson) seems to drift into mental instability and only with the arrival of an aunt is the family steadied -- Rachel Griffiths plays aunt Ellie, whose importance you'll recognize the second she appears on screen. As to the connection between Goff and Travers, you figure it out. Or wait for the Third Act, in which all is explained.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Saving Mr. Banks, he would have paid . . .
One of the Best of the Year. Hanks delivers the Uncle Walt I watched every week on The Wonderful World of Disney television show. Emma Thompson, though, is exceptional.
The 9* rating means the film is good enough, in our opinion, to make end of year lists and take statues and other such awards
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