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‘Saving Mr. Banks’ is a spoonful of sugar

Published: Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 10:37 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided)
Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks."

For most scribes who have toiled in the movie industry, portraying Hollywood as a healing paradise is roughly equivalent to regaling a lobster of the soothing properties of a boiling pot of water.

Hollywood has always, and probably will always, chew up authors. From “Sunset Boulevard” to “In a Lonely Place” to “Barton Fink,” we’ve often had the writer’s perspective on the painful life of movie scripting. Now, in Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” we have the studio’s.

No one, needless to say, winds up face down in a swimming pool in the Disney version.

“Saving Mr. Banks,” directed by John Lee Hancock (a sure studio hand of inspirational tales like “The Blind Side” and “The Rookie”), is based on the true story of the tug of wills between “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Finally drawn by Disney’s money and years of entreaties to adapt her books, the extremely particular British writer arrives in mythic 1961 Los Angeles like a dark cloud indignant of sunshine.

She peers warily at “Los Ang-uh-lees,” as she calls it, from the back window of the limo that’s been sent to pick her up. Her chipper driver (Paul Giamatti) is infuriatingly American. She flinches when he calls her home “Inger-land” and, worse, says “no problemo.”

It’s just the start of the unpleasantness for Travers, who recoils at the thought of handing over her very precious characters – “my family,” she says – to Disney. When she arrives in a hotel room strewn with baskets and stuffed animals, she faces a giant Mickey doll in the corner, telling him he can stay there “until you learn the art of subtlety.”

She doesn’t treat Disney much better, nor her would-be collaborators: writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman). She is resolute in keeping sentimentality, trite showmanship or dancing penguins from her tale.

The Disney team are puppy dogs, obedient but pleading with big eyes to be let off the leash. As the mustached Disney, Hanks (well-suited for the part, belying only the slightest hint of Disney’s strong-arm side) absorbs her contempt for his “silly cartoon” with a quick wince. But he’s equally dauntless in the certainty of his mission, a zealot for the fantasy of storytelling. They’re all flummoxed by her demands, like not having red in the film: “I’ve simply gone off the color,” says Travers.

As these lines, from the script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, suggest, it’s extremely pleasurable watching Thompson in the role. With pursed lips and folded arms, she’s a force of condescension.

But she’s also a haunted woman. In a flashback that runs intermittently throughout the film, “Saving Mr. Banks” explores the roots of Travers’ fiction in the reality of her upbringing. Her childhood in rural Australia at the start of the 20th century was poor and tragic because of her sick and alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), the Mr. Banks in need of saving.

The background explains the source of Travers’ Poppins and gives “Saving Mr. Banks” something genuine about artists and the drive for storytelling. (Don’t expect straight history here. Travers, for one, didn’t end up a fan of Disney or the “Mary Poppins” movie.) But it also leads it into the very same kind of sap Travers wailed against.

“Saving Mr. Banks,” a Disney movie about a Disney movie (timed for the 50th anniversary of “Mary Poppins”), is a feature film advertisement not just for the Mouse House, but for the Hollywood dream factory. Just as Travers is eventually won over by her Hollywood adversaries, the strong sentimental pull of “Saving Mr. Banks” overwhelms, too.

Resistance is futile. We’re helpless before Hollywood, done in by the simple, undefeatable power of a little song and dance.

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