In terms of adapting a secondary medium to film, the sweet spot between making the film commercially acceptable and true and faithful to the spirit of the original product is tough to achieve. It’s a dynamic that is in constant play and is always interacting and/or clashing with each other. This is the interaction that is going on when movies like, say, Catching Fire are made.
2013, in general, has been a pretty weak year for adaptations. Even the good ones like, say, Catching Fire, don’t fully capture the spirit of the source material. And then there’s The Great Gatsby. Ugh! I feel that the only nominations in the Best Adapted Screenplay section of the Oscars will stem from obscure source materials, as opposed to notoriously popular source materials. So, the solution to revitalize the adaptation: make a movie about the overall process (any conflicts, connections, etc.) of adapting a beloved source material.
This is where Saving Mr. Banks comes in. It’s 1961 and Mr. Walt Disney wishes to turn the popular series of Mary Poppins books into a movie. I don’t exactly remember what it was called, but I digress. Only one obstacle stands in their way: P.L. Travers, the author. She wants to make sure it’s just right and she disapproves a lot of ideas that Disney and his creative group possesses. Throughout the film, flashback scenes are interspersed that show Travers’ childhood, including her relationship with her father.
And this is where Saving Mr. Banks sets itself apart not merely from film adaptations, but films about films or creating source materials. Her life. It’s a cliché to hear certain writers or creators say, “So and so is a part of me.” In P.L. Travers’ case, Mary Poppins IS her, both figuratively and literally. Mary Poppins is the summation of P.L. Travers’ life; the amalgamation of her childhood, her troubles, and herself. We see Mary Poppins in her in a literal way, via her movements and mannerisms. We see Mary Poppins in her metaphorically, via her life. Mary Poppins was birthed by merely P.L. Travers’ existence, which is why see faces the hard decision of whether or not she should hand the rights over to Walt Disney. How would he treat her? Once Disney has the rights, he isn’t handling a character. He’s handling a human life in the most figurative sense of the word. A movie daring and competent enough to handle this theme gets a mountain of respect from me.
The film also finds allegory in, of all places, that goddamned mouse. In an early scene, P.L. Travers is annoyed to find a huge Mickey doll in her hotel room. Then, as time goes on and Travers starts making decisions, she becomes closer to the Mickey doll. This is both a funny yet heartwarming way in showing her personal connection to Poppins and her deep-hidden trust issues, which I’ll get to later.
P.L. Travers wrote one of the most popular series of books, which lent itself to probably Disney’s most famous live-action flick. So which highly touted, uber-talented, Oscar-caliber actress is going to attempt to play this weighty role? Meryl Streep? Julianne Moore? No. Emma Thompson. Yeah, maybe Thompson is always the “first-choice” actress, but she’s very talented and I am eternally grateful that she was picked, as she gives a career defining and utterly transcendent performance. I’m sure some may bitch about that she exaggerates it, given that we hear some of the actual conversations between Disney’s creative team and P.L. Travers at the end credits (you’re welcome, in advance), but I believe that, in this day in age, an actor must combine the real life, stature, and mannerisms of the person with somewhat of a caricature of that person when doing a biopic.
And Thompson makers Travers an utterly fascinating figure. This performance is allegorical to her career. Her career has been a mixed bag of kooky, comical, and melodramatic. Her performance allows for all three of these adjectives to be exuded. The fact that she can switch from idiosyncratic whimsy to gut-wrenching pain and do it so naturally and immaculately, sometimes within seconds, says a lot about her skill and dedication to her craft. One scene that stood out to me was the climactic premiere of the film. That moment comes with an intense catharsis to the audience and to Travers and she portrays that catharsis with such haunting subtlety that I was moved. It’s right up there with Jessica Chastain’s final shot from Zero Dark Thirty, in terms of pure minimal brilliance that knows how to elicit emotions.
Tom Hanks is utterly masterful, as I expected, as Walt Disney. Hanks has a history of innovation connection to Disney. First, he has a voice-over role in the first CGI animated film and the first PIXAR film and now, he is playing the man behind the mouse with newly discovered elements: warmth, passion, humor, depth, and even a hint of pain. It’s an enlightening performance. Earlier, I mentioned P.L. Travers’ relationship with her father. Collin Farrell plays him and it, like the others, is Oscar-worthy. The way he transitions from a chirpy, happy, loving, almost obsessive father to a tortured, guilt-struck, bed-ridden alcoholic is incredibly frightening and thoroughly believable and sincere. The deteriorating relationship also perfectly states why Travers has trust issues with Disney. Paul Giamatti, who portrays Ralph, a chauffeur for Mrs. Travers, only has a minimal amount of screen time and yet is very memorable as he gives what is probably his best performance.
This movie is a magical, enchanting, evocative experience. It’s a joy to see little details of Travers’ life that were blatantly transferred to the Mary Poppins franchise. It’s a joy to see the songs of the film being re-created. It’s a joy to see the fake P.L. Travers reacting to the real Mary Poppins movie. And it’s especially a joy to see a film provide closure not through a final shot, but by pictures in the end credits. It’s an unadulterated, perfect example of how to incorporate historical context and not disrupt thematic cohesiveness. This kind of magic is why I love film and why I take such pride in my passion with them. I walked into this expecting a straightforward biopic involving a dynamic between Travers and Disney and I walked out, giddy to find out the DVD release date.
What are you waiting for? Go see it! Spit spot!
RATING: Four out of four stars!