Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Saving Mr. Banks" explains "Mary Poppins"

Well, “Mr. Banks” turns out to be the beleaguered pa in the wonderful 1964 musical “Mary Poppins” from Walt Disney, directed by Robert Stevenson, with Julie Andrews as Mary and David Tomlinson as Banks, and the peripatetic Dick Van Dyke as Bert.  I think I saw if in January 1965, as I lived at home, shortly after I had returned to full-time student status at George Washington University, and it won Best Picture.  It seemed a bit small scale, on a regularly sized screen, compared to other musicals from the 50s, after Fox invented Cinemascope.
  
So, “Saving Mr. Banks” (by John Lee Hancock) tells us the story of making the famous musical fantasy.  The new film centers around the life of the children’s book author  P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), with the tragedy, shown in extensive intermittent flashbacks, of her family life as a girl in Australia, where her dad (Colin Farrell), who had brought modern banking to the Queensland outback, died of tuberculosis (apparently).   Travers needs income and when Walt Disney Studios approaches her about making a musical of her book, she travels to Los Angeles and works with the studio.
  
She has her opinions – which she delivers at the very first table reading of the “Mary Poppins” typewritten screenplay-- which she might not be in a position to enforce.  She is put off by Disney’s gaudiness, as when her Beverly Hills hotel room is decorated with Disney toys.  She resents some of the casting (Van Dyke) and tries to cancel the film when Disney (Tom Hanks) finally confesses that some of the animals (the penguins) and effects in the film will be animated.  Disney winds up flying to London to persuade her to come back, telling the story of his own harsh boyhood delivering newspapers in Missouri.
  
The Sherman brothers (B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) are shown writing the songs from storyboards in a relatively low tech rehearsal hall.  They look like “nice boys” from the early 60s, and they’ll probably have to worry about the military draft later.  Schwartzman’s appearance is somewhat softened, to say the least.
  
There is an early scene when Walt takes Travers to Disneyland, which had opened just in 1955, as I recall.  (There was a fantasy park called "Doodyville" based on the Howdy Doody show that "opened" about the same time.)  I visited the park last in 2012 (picture), and the same rail station is in the movie.  I had visited it before, in 1969 right before a job interview when getting out of the Army.  I do want to see "Cars Land" next time (it wasn't quite open when I was there).  Oddly, an episode of "Modern Family" set in Disneyland, where Dylan winds up as an employee and clown on stilts, re-aired on Fox affiliates last night. 
   
  
The film was produced by BBC, Ruby Films, and Australia but is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures directly rather than by Touchstone or Miramax.  Still, it aims for the high-end of the arthouse market. The official site is here.  I saw it late Monday night in the “lounge” at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington VA.  I like AMC’s older “outer space theater” trademark better than the new one (with Coca Cola).

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