Monday, December 16, 2013

SAVING MR. BANKS -- my review

SAVING MR. BANKS is the behind-the-scenes story of how Walt Disney coerced author P.L. Travers into letting him make MARY POPPINS. There’s no real spoiler alert because, well… if you don’t know by now that MARY POPPINS did get made, you’ve been living in a cave.

It's an enjoyable holiday movie although a better title might have been A TRUCKLOAD OF SCHMALTZ HELPS THE MOVIE GO DOWN.  It was a little, well... Disney.  But if you have fondness for the subject matter and Uncle Walt (which I do) you will probably come away happy.  It’s glossy, it’s PG, it’s homespun, there are even Jews (the Sherman brothers), and it’s more fantasy than reality.

Now then, full disclosure: As a longtime screenwriter, veteran of many maddening notes sessions – they could have all the flashbacks they want showing Ms. Travers tragic childhood; I still couldn’t sympathize with her for throwing the script out a window. And I agree with her on most script points.

There is something a little incestuous about Walt Disney Pictures making a movie where Walt Disney stars and is the shining hero. I shudder to think if Miramax does something similar where the hero that saves the day is Harvey Weinstein.

As I said, this movie has a lot of Disney fairy dust sprinkled on it. Google the real P.L. Travers. This was a horrible wretched woman whose selfishness knew no bounds and who destroyed numerous lives along the way. Emma Thompson was the Julie Andrews version of this hateful spinster.



Tom Hanks was fine as Uncle Walt although he didn’t have much to play. Folksy. He was very folksy.

At the end of the day I felt a more compelling story would have been the making of Disneyland. Or the discovery of Annette.

Nice to see it's doing well at the boxoffice, but please Disney Company, don’t make a sequel. Don’t make SAVING KING TRIDENT where Michael Eisner gets THE LITTLE MERMAID produced by suing everybody.

35 comments:

Hamid said...

This was a horrible wretched woman whose selfishness knew no bounds and who destroyed numerous lives along the way.

Now THAT would've made me want to see this! There's always more dramatic meat to an honest depiction of a historical character than doing a hagiography.

I shudder at the thought of the Michael Jackson Estate being involved with an officially authorized biopic. I can picture it now. He's shown having a string of girlfriends and never having any plastic surgery. (In case I get attacked by any fans, he was a musical genius, no doubt, but he was also a seriously and tragically fucked up person).

Mark in Auburn said...

Or how about "Saving Professor Snape"! Don't know if J.K. Rowling had the same attitude as Ms. Travers but I've always heard a lot of arm-twisting had to be done to get her to sign off on movies of Harry Whatzisname.

Daniel S. said...

After seeing the movie, I watched the Sherman Brothers documentary.

Corinne said...

The BBC had an excellent documentary about PL Travers not too long ago (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03kk4yv) and she was pretty selfish. The child she adopted was actually one of twins; she had her favorite astrologer cast the babies' horoscopes and adopted the one with the more favorable chart. She never told him he had a twin until he was tracked down by his brother.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I have promised myself I won't see this movie already. I loved the Mary Poppins books as a child. The movie was a travesty of the original character, and quite apart from my general policy on not seeing fictional movies about historical figures I refuse to pay Disney to glorify what it did to those books.

As a footnote, MARY POPPINS has one other deplorable effect: you cannot mention Dick Van Dyke's name in Britain without everyone falling into a heap of mocking laughter. Yes, his accent was *that* bad.

The other really sucky thing is that because Disney owns the rights the BBC will never be able to make a mini-series of the character as she was wrote.

wg

Phillip B said...

I'd pay to see "Winning the Pooh" - about Disney's victorious 18 year long lawsuit over the rights to the famous bear.

An exiting chance to show the heroic actions of a generation of intellectual property lawyers...

Hamid said...

Wendy

Ironically, Tom Hanks was on a UK chat show a few years ago in which he did an English accent and the host, Jonathan Ross, joked that he sounded like Dick Van Dyke.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhSN4VqXf2k

DonBoy said...

That Annette biopic does exist:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112898/

craig m said...

Isn't Iran making its own Argo movie? It would be interesting to see "Mr. Banks" remade from the Travers estate's perspective.

DBenson said...

The thing about figures like Disney or Edison is that a good biopic has to focus on the early years. Drive, bull-headedness and eccentricity are appealing in an underdog tilting at windmills. When the windmills become the underdogs, those same qualities become much less charming.

Eisner was a media darling when he took over the struggling Disney. Once he turned it into a corporate juggernaut, the micromanagement and crazy ideas went from engaging to alienating.

I don't see a movie in the building of Disneyland, unless you could come up with some sort of farce climaxing with the disastrous opening day (the audience would know the park worked out; the focus would be on how a character got through his corner of it).

A pretty good biopic could come out of the pre-Snow White Walt: Bringing comically absurd ambition to the penny-ante cartoon business, getting screwed over by distributors, and driving his brother/partner crazy by constantly betting the farm.

Anonymous said...

Saw AMERICAN HUSTLE. At least they had the guts to say "Some" of this really happned" at the beging of the movie. ARGO should have said "not much if this really happened".

Johnny Walker said...

Yeah, there was something a little off about this movie, although it's currently a critic's darling.

I'm not sure I trust everything I'd read on Google about the real PL Travers -- I've read a bit of her biography (although not that much, I admit) and, yes, she messed up when it came to her kid, but I don't know if she really destroyed anyone's lives through sheer selfishness...? Was she really that bad?

Either way, she was as much of an artist as Walt Disney was a businessman. And Walt Disney was one hell of a businessman.

Speaking of which, I don't believe for a second that you can build an empire like Disney without razor sharp business instincts and a cold, calculating, mercenary attitude. And yet here he is portrayed as having all the genial characteristics of Mr Rogers and Father Christmas rolled into one.

I guess there was enough fairy dust for both of them.

Travers believed in her art, just as Disney believed in money -- and it's a little distasteful that her legacy as an artist (forgetting what she may or may not have been like as a person for a moment) should later be characterized as someone who was secretly won over by Disney; when in reality she maintained her dislike for him and everything he stood for.

chalmers said...

You can't read the whole thing here, but Paul Rudnick once wrote a hysterical New Yorker story about selling "Sister Act" to the Mouse House.

He also talks about the leering glee around the office when the first mockups of The Little Mermaid's Ariel were distributed.

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/07/20/090720fa_fact_rudnick

Mike said...

Oops. Seems the film is a British affair (developed by the BBC, English producer & writer).
If it pulled punches, it won't be just for the benefit of Disney, but to sell into America.

Storm said...

I was obsessed with the movie as a child; I'll bet my bat'leth that both my parents are glad VCRs and DVDs didn't exist then, or I'd have driven them as crazy with the film itself as I did with its soundtrack (which I actually wore out and had to replace from my own allowance). So great was my obsession with both the movie and with reading books in general that I pleaded with my mother to get me the book it was based on, and its sequel. I was stunned; the Movie Mary is a bit odd/eccentric, but the Book Mary is nothing short of dark and bizarre. She's still fun, but only if you're the kinda kid that likes Edward Gorey drawings and Charles Addams cartoons (which I did/do!) And it was/is SO English, compared to the movie which I had mistaken for somehow being accurate to the culture; I can't explain it now, but to 7 year old me, it was quite strange and instructive. It was a little off-putting at first, but then I just rolled with it and re-read them til they fell apart. Loving the movie didn't make the books rubbish to me, and vice versa. Everything English became automatically awesome from then on in, especially their music (KINKS! BOWIE! ZEP!); living there as a child did nothing to dull my love (weird food, no Halloween, and the rise of Thatcher not withstanding).

So, there you go, you poor Englishmen that post here and get an automatic "Phwoar! Way-hey!" from me. You can blame Mary Poppins, Davy Jones, David Bowie, and Roddy McDowell for my untoward attentions.

I understand her misgivings with the changes they wanted to make to her characters, but nevertheless, I love that damn silly musical (I loathe most musicals, people just bursting out in song and dancing around like loonies), so I don't really see the point of watching this movie, which will just trash-talk my favourite childhood movie. Thanks for the warning, Ken.

Cheers, way-hey!

Storm

Carol said...

'Storm' - Are you me? Because I could have written that post word for word. Right down to the mention of Davy Jones.

We had all the Mary Poppins books - I think they had belonged to my aunt - and once I got past the 'hey this isn't the Mary Poppins I know' moment I loved them to pieces.

Asurehi 577 said...

Ms. Grossman: The BBC may not be able to adapt "Mary Poppins" for TV, but it did do a radio version a few years back, that accurately represented the book, and had a perfectly cast Juliet Stevenson as Mary.

Greg Ehrbar said...

“I still couldn’t sympathize with her for throwing the script out a window. And I agree with her on most script points.”

@Ken
Didn’t Bob Hope throw his writers’ paychecks out the window to them once? Seems I heard that somewhere. It could be said that the Poppins film was better than it might have been because she was so demanding. They did value her input. It’s on tape (and on the soundtrack CDs). She pushed Walt Disney to prove her wrong about her assertions that he would damage the book. It could also be said that no other studio could have made the movie the way Disney did. The same with the Sherman songs.


@ Hamid
This was a horrible wretched woman whose selfishness knew no bounds and who destroyed numerous lives along the way.

“Now THAT would've made me want to see this! There's always more dramatic meat to an honest depiction of a historical character than doing a hagiography.”

Trust me Hamid, the movie is as meaty as Lady Gaga’s dress, just not sensational.

@Mark
“Or how about "Saving Professor Snape"! Don't know if J.K. Rowling had the same attitude as Ms. Travers but I've always heard a lot of arm-twisting had to be done to get her to sign off on movies of Harry Whatzisname.”

Rowling has much more influence over the movie than Travers. The corporate world has changed a lot since the early ‘60s.

“After seeing the movie, I watched the Sherman Brothers documentary.”

@Daniel
Cheers. The more you learn about the background, the more meaning you find in “Mr. Banks.” Robert Sherman is seen limping due to a war injury. He got the Purple Heart for that. He was also among the first soldiers to enter a death camp after the war ended. What he saw caused a breakdown and haunted him for the rest of his life.

“The BBC had an excellent documentary about PL Travers not too long ago (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03kk4yv) and she was pretty selfish. The child she adopted was actually one of twins; she had her favorite astrologer cast the babies' horoscopes and adopted the one with the more favorable chart. She never told him he had a twin until he was tracked down by his brother.”

@Daniel
Travers lived the dark, sinister version of “The Parent Trap.”

“I have promised myself I won't see this movie already. I loved the Mary Poppins books as a child. The movie was a travesty of the original character, and quite apart from my general policy on not seeing fictional movies about historical figures I refuse to pay Disney to glorify what it did to those books.”

@Corinne
Roald Dahl HATED the Gene Wilder version of “Willy Wonka,” and threatened to publicly denounce Jim Henson’s film of “The Witches.” You may want to avoid them, too.

“As a footnote, MARY POPPINS has one other deplorable effect: you cannot mention Dick Van Dyke's name in Britain without everyone falling into a heap of mocking laughter. Yes, his accent was *that* bad.”

@Corinne
Dick Van Dyke will be the first person to laugh and concede that – as well as point out that J. Pat O’Malley, who had an odd Irish/English accent, coached him.

You can hear O’Malley’s voice as in the “Supercalifragilistic” sequence as the Pearlie who is hit with the tambourine. Oh—you won’t watch it, sorry.

Renowned British critic Brian Sibley has written extensively about the Disney Mary Poppins and apparently likes it. Go figure.

Greg Ehrbar said...

@DonBoy & Ken
I was kind of relieved that Annette was not mentioned in “Mr. Banks.” I couldn’t bear hearing a snarky remark about her from the Travers character. Two little signs for “Babes in Toyland,” Annette’s favorite of her movies, is seen behind the actors on a studio doorway.

“Yes, she messed up when it came to her kid, but I don't know if she really destroyed anyone's lives through sheer selfishness...? Was she really that bad?”

@Johnny
Yep. She could be very yucky.

“Either way, she was as much of an artist as Walt Disney was a businessman. And Walt Disney was one hell of a businessman.”

@Johnny
Agreed. That’s the essence of the movie. Both were geniuses at a lot of things, as were DaGradi and the Shermans. When creative people approach a project no one is complete wrong, which is a breeding ground for conflict. Travers loved her work and was protective. Walt Disney loved his studio and was sure he could do it proud. The Shermans were emotionally invested in each song.

I’ve talked with Richard Sherman about the song Julie Andrews asked them to take out: “The Eyes of Love.” They were shattered, but that’s what led to “A Spoonful of Sugar.”

“Speaking of which, I don't believe for a second that you can build an empire like Disney without razor sharp business instincts and a cold, calculating, mercenary attitude. And yet here he is portrayed as having all the genial characteristics of Mr Rogers and Father Christmas rolled into one.”

@Johnny
But both personalities are and were real. The Walt Disney in this film was very real and Hanks did a fantastic job. Several people who knew him have said that. But the movie was about Disney convincing Travers, thus he was being the “storyteller,” the confident, optimistic and yes, manipulative Walt Disney. The movie’s Travers wants to be convinced that he really means it and he did.

Walt Disney put everything he and his artists had learned about entertainment in the movie, even Audio-Animatronics. Even the best of his other films had only some of these elements, but his “Poppins” had all of them. He was driven to make his ultimate film (“Sleeping Beauty” had disappointed him with its lackluster box office a few years earlier).

"Travers believed in her art, just as Disney believed in money -- and it's a little distasteful that her legacy as an artist (forgetting what she may or may not have been like as a person for a moment) should later be characterized as someone who was secretly won over by Disney; when in reality she maintained her dislike for him and everything he stood for."

@Johnny
Not completely true. Walt Disney believed in his art, too. He didn’t believe just in money – he saw it as a tool and risked all of it many times for projects. He and his brother Roy came to blows many, many times about Walt wanted to spend on quality and innovation and Roy wanted to be grounded. Travers was mercurial and changed her mind on a dime. There are letters in the Disney Archives to both effects. She would trash the film to some and extol it to others.

Greg Ehrbar said...

”I love that damn silly musical (I loathe most musicals, people just bursting out in song and dancing around like loonies), so I don't really see the point of watching this movie, which will just trash-talk my favourite childhood movie.”

@Storm
Far from trashing the movie, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a heartfelt celebration of it. It is a paean to what movies can do and what they can mean.

Sure, there are movies that have more gravitas than "Mary Poppins," but “Mary Poppins” has now been part of the landscape for 50 years and is embedded in many of our lives. I know it is in mine. I have to tell you that I was verklempt more than a few times while watching it – verklempt in sorrow, but more often verklempt for joy.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is also ingenious in that it shows the charming side of Walt Disney and the influence of his empire, but through the Travers character is also speaks to the many who perceive Disney as sweet and dangerous, like Lydia’s tainted packet of Stevia. She embodies this viewpoint just as many who see the film are, so virtually all the bases are covered.

Loosehead said...

The title of this movie captures exactly the difference between seeing the Mary Poppins movie as a child, and seeing it as a parent. Quite profound.

Johnny Walker said...

@Greg You talk as if you're an expert on all these matters, but what little I know about Travers contradicts with what you said.

"Travers was mercurial and changed her mind on a dime. There are letters in the Disney Archives to both effects. She would trash the film to some and extol it to others."

She was actually completely consistent in her beliefs -- she just wasn't above being political when it suited her. So yes, after she'd left LA she sent a few letters indicating her support for the film -- probably partially as means of an apology for being so difficult to work with -- but also largely because there was talk of a sequel.

Her views on the final film were completely consistent outside of those two(?) letters to Disney.

Whatever her shortcomings, it seems unfair to label her as "mercurial" based on the version of her viewable through the Disney archives.

Re: Walt Disney. Being British I'm naturally skeptical of everything Disney -- perhaps unfairly, I don't know. "Disney" here is considered synonymous with everything fake, plastic and consumerist. Not a million miles away from Travers's view, to be honest. As a company, it seems calculating, saccharine, and insincere.

Moving to LA 10 years ago, it took some work to let myself enjoy Disneyland, but I got there. I can see why people love it and Disney. And I can't take away from the talented artists who have produced great work for the company -- I enjoy good movies, no matter who made them.

But knowing many people who have worked for them, and its industry nickname ("Mauschwitz"), not to mention hearing horror stories from people who worked with the man himself, I remain skeptical that Hanks's portrayal was accurate.

Johnny Walker said...

@Mike

The film was very knowingly produced by Disney to help maintain its brand.

Greg Ehrbar said...

@Johnny
There's an old saying: "Write about what you know."

Johnny Walker said...

@Greg

Sorry if I offended you. I'm aware of your credentials, but I'm still a little doubtful.

Thanks.

Johnny Walker said...

If anyone out there has the time, this documentary about Disney during the strikes is fascinating. (Although people in love with the the man with hate it.)

Secret Lives: Walt Disney (1994)- Channel 4

What's fascinating, after watching that documentary, is to watch the official version of those events:

Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (2001)

Very interesting.

Greg Ehrbar said...

@Johnny
Oh, no, absolutely none taken! No offense at all.

Disney is like the Land of Oz, marvelous overall with fantastic wonders everywhere -- but a few of the yellow bricks do have bumps and cracks here and there. Most if not all organizations and workplaces have them.

Thank you for being so kind in your follow-up. That's all too rare on the internet!

Greg Ehrbar said...

Other good books include:

Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas (he is far from perfect in this account, which is still the book least prone to conjecture)

The Disney Films by Leonard Maltin (an exhaustive account of every feature film in Walt Disney's lifetime and still one of the best Disney books, period)

To get the latter day Disney story, read "Storming the Magic Kingdom" for the first half of the Eisner era and "Disney Wars" for the conclusion.

As mentioned above, the Sherman documentary "The Boys" is outstanding, as is "Waking Sleeping Beauty."

And if you want to hear the actual meetings with Travers, they're on the Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks special edition CD's.

Johnny Walker said...

All this talk of Disney actually makes me want to go back and watch what they managed to achieve back then. And, now knowing what was going on in the background during production, seeing what I make of Dumbo.

Johnny Walker said...

@Greg

It'd be very interesting to listen to the whole recordings, but I guess nobody is ever going to bother packaging them up and releasing them to the general public :(

Barry Traylor said...

After reading about Travers I must say she sounds like she was a real Harpy. Not a very nice person at all.

D. McEwan said...

Johnny Walker said...
Either way, she was as much of an artist as Walt Disney was a businessman. And Walt Disney was one hell of a businessman.

Speaking of which, I don't believe for a second that you can build an empire like Disney without razor sharp business instincts and a cold, calculating, mercenary attitude."


You're confusing Walt Disney with Roy Disney (And are apparently unaware of how many times the studio hovered on the brink of insolvancy. 1945-'50 in particular were bleak days for the studio's finances). Roy Disney was a hell of a businessman. Walt, more than once, mortgaged the house and all he owned to get a project few believed in (Snow White, Disneyland, etc.) made. Walt had no aversion to money, but it was never his goal, only one more tool needed to make what he wanted to make. Now Eisner, there you have "a cold, calculating, mercenary attitude." I second the above recomendation of Disney Wars, a book I expected to skim through only to find every page fascinating.

Another truly excellent, and exhaustive, book on Walt is Neal Gabler's Walt Disney. Neal spent three years just going through The Disney Archives. He may be the only human being ever to have looked at every single piece of paper in those enormous archives. Many are the myths about Walt (Avarice, anti-Semitism, racism, cynicism, etc.) that are exploded in that volumonous work. I've read 7 different bios of Disney and it is the best one. The worst is Marc Eliot's vicious hatchet-job work of libel Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince.

On last week's Graham Norton Show, Emma Thompson related her own embarrasment at the premiere of Saving Mr. Banks, as she had to listen to her own speaking of Travers's cruel remarks re: Dick Van Dyke while she was seated directly behind Van Dyke.

Storm said...

@Carol: I know, right?! We even picked the same Xmas songs! Cheers, darling, have another egg nog with me, I doubled the rum!

@Greg: Since I don't go to theatres as a rule, I will probably see it when it comes out on video, because I *do* love Emma Thompson. You've got me all conflicted now.

And of course Johnny was ever polite to you; he's one of those poor Englishmen I bother around here, the only way he'd be outright rude to you is if he was pissed as a lord and had a gun to his head. (He puts up with/ignores me, so it must be true)

Happy happy to all and sundry,

Storm

Johnny Walker said...

Hello Storm! (See, I don't completely ignore you! :)

@D.McEwan
It seems to me that once you bring enough joy and happiness into people's lives, they will leap to your defense. (Try criticizing Steve Jobs in a crowded room.)

I never said that Disney was motivated by money (building an empire can be motivated by more than just that), but maybe "businessman" was the wrong word.

You have to ask why he put his name on everything. Even the horrible cash-in books that the Disney corporation released around the time of Mary Poppins read "Walt Disney's Mary Poppins" on the cover. No mention of Travers at all. Could you be more disrespectful to the source material?

Disney liked to promote himself. He liked building a myth around himself. And he was clearly driven -- not just to produce good work -- but to produce the BEST work. And then he was driven to put his name on that work, as if it was his own.

To me it's just common sense: Nobody can be THAT ambitious, with THOSE traits, without being motivated by something a little less wholesome. I'm not saying he was an ogre, but he's portrayed in "Saving Mr Banks" as just about the most easy going, perfect human being who ever lived, when it's obvious that working with PL Travers would have thrown the Dalai Lama into a rage.

And, much like Steve Jobs, the people who worked with Disney tell horror stories, but such stories are ignored or discounted by his fans. (Those co-workers just had axes to grind. They're probably over-sensitive. He was having a bad day. That's just how greatness behaves.)

Disney did some reprehensible things in his day. He literally destroyed innocent people's lives when he testified they were communists, for example. But, unlike Travers, he gets a pass for his behaviour.

I think the two documentaries I linked to do a brilliant job of highlighting this disparity. Both use the same talking heads to make their points, literally the exact same people, but one censors what they say.

I guess I lean towards the uncensored version.

attmay said...

I hated it as much as I hated the subject matter. But I would have loved this movie if it had been called SAVING MR. BROWNE.