This is definitely one in the ‘wait for it’ category. It’s got some stuff working against it–big budget, Disney, stars who usually ride the integrity line but have been know to trip over it–but word on the street prompted me to give it more consideration and even a rent click last night.
In short: Tom Hanks (The Man with One Red Shoe) and Emma Thomas (Dead Again) star in this big budget tale of the making of Mary Poppins. Yeah, I know, you don’t know those movies … or maybe you do and are seriously tickled by nostalgia now. Anyway, allow me to digress away from digression to continue this review:
I’m writing about this one because:
a) It manages to take a true-life story and surgically carve out a plot that keeps the audience suspended in the beautiful, colorful, cheerful elements of a time period–indeed, we are warmly invited behind the scenes to witness a process around creating a children’s movie inspired by an incredibly dark childhood
b) Like the protagonist, I (and many others) experienced the disabling reality-check of losing a parent when young as well as the side effects of an alcoholic parent
Basically, this film was so resonant, so earnestly crafted and yet so light-hearted that I can hardly believe it exists! It was like eating a bag of marshmallows without the sugar low … like someone invented very nutritious marshmallows.
Saving Mr. Banks draws its strength from colorfully masking the drama of an emotionally-paralyzed genius author (P.L. Travers) being forced to reconcile her past baggage with the help of a sing-song Los Angeles creative team and interactions with Disney himself. We witness the contagion of her deep despair as the Disney artists fight against her controlling, heavy, relentless adaptations to life itself.
We see that the film in essence documents the power of human love, vision and dedication to turn one woman’s incredible misery into a movie that would bring joy and laughter to millions of children (Poppins, incidentally, was the first film I ever saw in a movie theatre!).
Through its very basic interspersion of past (20s/30s Australia) and not-so-past (1960s LA and London), the film helps us easily into the shoes of all of the characters, with particular focus on Disney and P.L. Travers (the author of Mary Poppins). Moreover, filmmakers today have discovered a way to ride a line between fantasy and reality given camera angles/lenses, makeup and high definition technology so that you experience something just beyond real, in a way where you can detach, enjoy and let the deeper elements of what is being expressed slink around your defenses.
The next morning you might wake up, like I did, into a dream, of highlights you remember from a film like this. Deep thoughts about your own life that suddenly other people understand, all-to-well … what few would be able to say directly, and many would join together to convey in a film like this: that the hardships we face, in early life or anytime in life, are opportunities to find grace, and in more intense cases opportunities to make something so deeply touching to countless other people. Everything we see as a weakness has the potential to be our greatest strength. If we’d only have the courage to step forward, firm-footed, letting go of our fearful grip on the past.
But is it really that simple? Never.
We see how difficult if not impossible it is to let go of the past for Travers as it was absolutely essential that she didn’t in order to write her masterpiece! Her father preached to her young ears that life is an illusion, supporting her deepest motivations as a successful author of a fantastic, pseudo-fictional tale of Poppins. But it could never be totally fiction, and life could never be completely fantasy to a girl who lost the love of her life at such a young age–watching her father’s slow-motion, horrific, and eventually lost battle with alcoholism. The rest of her life, clearly, is spent creating–through incredibly consistent displays of extreme control of herself and every conversation and interaction she took part in–scenarios that prevent any possibility of such loss, ever again, even if it meant extreme isolation even in crowds (the bar scene in the movie might cause people to wonder why it’s even there, but it’s perfectly essential to the outline of her character).
Disney and Travers, Disney and Travers … but to me, the most important character in the film is her driver, Ralph, by (Paul Giamatti). He provides a striking contrast to how one handles extreme disappointment.
Over the course of the film–through her ice-cold, demanding, correcting ways–you see that he doesn’t expect anything from Travers and moves with a lot of grace around her rigidity. It’s as if he understands her but has not taken such an approach on life himself and doesn’t at all realize that his approach is far, far more functional. Indeed, through the film we realize he more than understands her, because–due to his daughter’s disability–he is on an almost identical path.
Just like Travers, Ralph has had to reconcile extreme disappointment related to the disease* of a loved one. His path, however, doesn’t allow him to control anything because his daughter is alive and needs him to continuously let go of himself and his idea of the way things ‘should be’ so that he can love her. He has been on an underrated path of grace since the moment his daughter was born. By that comparison, the death of a loved one would be a cake walk, only marred by a person’s sense that they can control everything thereafter in a perfectly futile attempt to ensure that nothing like that could ever happen, again.
*Alcoholism, beyond addiction, is a disease folks–alcohol is widely known among toxicologists as the only drug so powerful that, when you are deeply addicted, you need a bridge drug (barbiturates) to get off it without dying.