A Spoonful of Cyanide: The Chilly, Borderline Nastiness of Saving Mr. Banks

LB’S NOTE: I was all set to write a review of SAVING MR. BANKS. Then I read this one, which says just about everything I would have in a way that’s probably better than I would have. Especially the last 2 sentences which I agree some up the real theme of this film. (No, I’m not giving them away. You have to read it.) So why duplicate near-perfection when I can take the time to, you know, feel bad about not writing instead?

saving-mr.-banksby Wesley Morris

In Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson plays Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers. It’s the early 1960s, and Travers keeps her hair in a short, close perm. She wears body-hugging tweed suits and her face is frozen in a clench of exasperation. Everything about her is tight, which is meant to make her eventual emotional undoing seem psychological. Because Walt Disney really loves her book, Travers has been flown from London to Los Angeles to help turn it into a movie. He’s been trying for 20 years, and for 20 years, the answer has been “no.” But now she’s broke and blocked and doesn’t want to lose her house.

So she deigns to visit a city she finds hideous, negotiate with a man she finds smarmy, and work on a film she’s sure to detest. Travers’s mornings and afternoons are spent first condescending to her driver (Paul Giamatti) and then in a bungalow on the Disney lot with Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), a veteran screenwriter, and Robert and Richard M. Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, respectively), the legendary Disney songwriters. She might as well be at Alcatraz. But in her mind, these men work for her, not Disney. Travers wants the sessions recorded. She makes a withering comparison between Laurence Olivier and Dick Van Dyke and bemoans the songs that the Saving Mr. Banks audience already knows are classics. People are going to be tempted to say, “I didn’t know Cruella de Vil wrote children’s books.”

You know where this is headed — not because there’s a finished film to prove it, but because Disney is played by Tom Hanks. The debonair geniality Hanks gives the role is so specific (he’s graying, tanned, and moustached; he keeps his smoking a secret, but you detect a polite cigarette musk about him), and the more he asks Travers to consider the happiness a Mary Poppins musical will bring to all the children of the world, the Grinchier that Travers is meant to seem.

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