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Monday, February 10, 2014

Newest Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks

The Oscar nominations were just announced today, and I am shocked that Saving Mr. Banks did not receive a single nod. I particularly expected to see Emma Thompson nominated for best actress and perhaps Bradley Whitford as best supporting actor, but sadly this wonderful film has been overlooked by the Academy. Very unfortunate, but the public’s opinion is not considered when doling out motion picture accolades. Nevertheless, it is a must-see for the whole family, especially fans of the Disney classic, Mary Poppins.

Other than The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, and perhaps Gone With the Wind, Mary Poppins is one of my all-time-favorite movies. I remember my grandmother introducing us to the soundtrack with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke gracing the album cover. My sisters and I sang all the songs and danced around her house, secretly wishing we could have a nanny float in with the wind and put our slightly dysfunctional family back to order. I even read the first book in the series by PL Travers while in elementary school and was enthralled. All three of my children fell in love with the movie when they were little and have all the songs memorized. We even held on to our old VCR so we can play our worn VHS when the mood strikes.

Saving Mr. Banks tells how these wonderful characters leapt off the pages of Mrs. Travers’ best-selling book and onto the silver screen exactly fifty years ago. Actually, the term “leapt” isn’t appropriate in this case, since there were many obstacles to Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) seeing his dream come to fruition—mainly because of Travers’ stubbornness (played by Emma Thompson). Her dogged opposition to her precious story being trivialized by Hollywood put decades between Disney’s offer and the premiere of the final product. Had it not been for his patience and unfailing persistence, the movie would have never been made. As a writer, it is easy to understand Travers’ fear that her beloved characters would be portrayed in a bad light, but her negative, pompous British attitude takes things a bit far. If not for her troubled childhood, she would be a very unlikeable character.

What makes this film so endearing is this backstory of Travers’ loving relationship with her troubled, yet well-intentioned father (played by Colin Farrell). Seen through moving flashbacks, we are introduced to a precocious little girl who absolutely adores her father despite his wild imagination and belief in unattainable dreams. Alcoholism, uncontrolled rage, and financial woes create confusion regarding his motives, which eventually threatens to rip the family apart. Travers’ mother (Ruth Wilson) buckles under the pressure and toys with suicide, but Travers will not be swayed. She remains loyal to her father, holding on to the hope that he will become the man she has always envisioned. 

When things get worse, Travers’ aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) unexpectantly appears, promising to restore balance to their chaotic world. With her black-brimmed hat and parrot-handled umbrella, she looks very much like a dusty, plain version of Julie Andrews’ rendition of Mary Poppins. It is an “aha” moment when she steps across the threshold of the front door with her Victorian boots in perfect, ballet first-position, ready to set the house in order. Plopping her tapestry bag on the table, she carefully unpacks, pulling out exotic items that leave Travers and her sister “gobsmacked” (a British term for shocked), much like the Banks children in the Disney film. Then with the snap of her fingers and a “spit spot,” she rolls up her sleeves and puts the children to work.

** SPOILER ALERT **
 
But even a real, live-in-the-flesh Mary Poppins cannot save Travers’ father, which is a cruel truth for a young girl to accept. When he dies from consumption, his dreams go with him, as does Travers’ hope for joy and happiness. Her only consolation is his imaginative spirit that has taken root in her soul, giving her the ability to rewrite her own version of reality. From her pain, the Banks family was birthed, including the stuffy Mr. Banks, naïve yet rebellious Mrs. Banks, endearing Jane and Michael, and the magical, yet somewhat supernatural, Mary Poppins.

There are so many more wonderful elements to Saving Mr. Banks, that it is impossible to list them all. First, Emma Thompson is hilarious as PL Travers and plays beautifully off Tom Hanks’ embodiment of the fun-loving Walt Disney. Their tender moments, often preceded by Travers’ pompous tirades, are touching—and when Disney and his development team finally crack through her thick veneer with the song, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” I had to work hard to hold back the tears. I loved the fact that both Travers and Disney were equally passionate about the same story that spoke so differently to their hearts. Both of them suffered dark childhoods at the hands of loving, yet disappointing fathers, and the fantasy of Mary Poppins was their opportunity to restore that legacy. If I had to sum up the movie in one sentence, I would say that Saving Mr. Banks is about the power of story to reconcile the past, thereby healing the deepest of wounds.

Don’t let the Academy’s Oscar snub stop you from getting to the theater (or your local Redbox) to see this fabulous film. Hopefully, its box-office success will revive a much-loved character and introduce her to a whole new generation of adults and children alike. It wouldn’t hurt this country a bit to have a few more Mary Poppinses in our homes and classrooms. Just sayin’! Sounds like a supercalifragilisticexpialidociously awesome idea if you ask me!

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