preview of the upcoming Disney film SAVING MR. BANKS (2013) which included a personal appearance by actress-screenwriter Emma Thompson.
The screening was a special members-only event hosted by the American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. Although I'm a Cinematheque member, to date I'd only attended screenings at the Aero's sister theater, the Egyptian in Hollywood -- mostly because I was apprehensive about the Aero only having street parking available. The parking situation was indeed a bit nerve-wracking, and then a spot miraculously opened up just steps from the theater!
The evening began with a clip reel of some of Thompson's best work, including one of my favorite movie scenes ever, the moment in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995) when she learns that Hugh Grant isn't married and bursts into uncontrollable sobs of relief and joy.
It was a real treat that Leonard Maltin was on hand to interview Thompson, a wide-ranging discussion that lasted nearly an hour. The time flew by as Thompson was great fun to listen to, smart and self-deprecating, with a great sense of humor. There are few "modern" actors I'd be thrilled to see speak in person, but Thompson is certainly on that short list. This quickly snapped cell phone photo isn't worth much but gives a quick glimpse of what the night "looked" like.
Discussing her previous work for Disney, contributing voices to TREASURE PLANET (2002) and BRAVE (2012), Thompson said she finds voice work much more difficult than other types of acting, as it takes place over a period of years, as the film is developed, and is usually done in a booth solo, without interacting with other actors.
Asked about some of the great performances and films in which she's appeared, she said that you do your research and prepare well, but then sometimes when you are actually doing the work, something lifts you up to the next level and it becomes something really special.
SAVING MR. BANKS itself was very good and worthwhile, the kind of film which sticks with you, thanks chiefly to Thompson's complex performance. In order to discuss the film fully, what follows will necessarily be a bit spoilerish, so those who wish to approach the film with a clean slate may want to circle back and finish reading this post after seeing the movie. SAVING MR. BANKS opens nationally on Friday, December 20th.
As many film fans are already aware, SAVING MR. BANKS is the story of notoriously difficult author P.L. Travers and her dealings with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) as he tried to acquire the rights to film MARY POPPINS (1964). As I learned at the Disney Expo last summer, Disney had pursued the rights since the 1940s, and after two decades Travers finally capitulated, but she made it as difficult for Disney as possible.
SAVING MR. BANKS is really two films in one, as the story of Travers' dealings with Disney is intercut with a look back at her childhood. Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson play Travers' parents, and Annie Buckley plays the author as a child.
I thoroughly enjoyed the '60s story, but the back story in Australia is, it must be said, depressing. These sequences are necessary to understand the adult P.L. Travers and her dealings with Disney, but I'd say I endured rather than enjoyed those scenes, though I did really like Rachel Griffiths in a small but key role. (Griffiths, of TV's BROTHERS AND SISTERS, also worked for director John Lee Hancock in the 2002 film THE ROOKIE.) I wish there were a way to have trimmed the childhood scenes without lessening the dramatic effect.
Travers, at least as portrayed on film, was an unhappy and rather lonely woman. Her almost unbearable rudeness and disdain with attempts to connect with her or show kindness can be amusing, but there's a great underlying sadness. The viewer gradually comes to understand how she became such a guarded person and the significance of the POPPINS characters vis-a-vis her real life, which makes it easier to feel sympathy rather than anger with her attitudes. We also see her gradually unbend, first to her relentlessly positive studio driver (Paul Giamatti), who we learn has his own cross to bear, and then gradually to screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford, THE WEST WING) and the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). The scene where she buys into "Let's Go Fly a Kite" is a delight.
Thompson is a marvel in the role -- watch the way her lips twitch with incredulity over the idea that Dick Van Dyke is "one of the greats." The movie would be worth seeing again if only to take in more details of her performance. The other characters are more shallowly drawn; this is Travers' story, and the other people are part of her story, rather than her being part of the story of the film MARY POPPINS.
TOY STORY franchise, does a good job capturing the well-known cadences of Walt Disney's speech; I didn't really buy him as Walt, but I enjoyed him in a "Tom Hanks as Walt Disney" kind of way. He has a great moment to shine late in the film, when he has a quiet talk with "Pam" and tells her that audiences will be watching her characters -- and seeing Mr. Banks redeemed -- for generations. That struck a strong chord both because of Hanks' performance and because the viewer knows so well that what he said became true.
The most moving sequence in the film is when Travers attends the film's premiere at the Chinese Theatre. When Irwin Kostal's beautifully orchestrated overture began, I was a goner; there were so many layers of emotion watching that scene, reacting both to Travers and the role of the film in my own life, as the first film I ever saw in a theater. (When I see MARY POPPINS at the El Capitan Theatre later this month, I suspect I'll react more emotionally than ever!)
Other than finding the childhood sections of the film a bit hard to watch, my other main issue with the movie was that I find films such as this and HITCHCOCK (2012) to have a sort of "plastic," phony retro feel. Some of it may be due to the "feel" of digital filming and the awareness of the use of green screens, but there's also an unsettling certainty that if one looks around the corners of the screen too closely, one will spot anachronisms. Perhaps that's a little more of a problem for a Southern Californian familiar with landmarks such as movie studios and Disneyland, but it's an issue.
I loved that SAVING MR. BANKS filmed at Disneyland and was willing to cut slack for dramatic license, but non-'60s sights such as the Carrousel being visible through the castle and the presence of Pinocchio's Daring Journey inevitably took me out of the story. Both those things came into being with "New Fantasyland" in 1983; at least the movie tried to show as little of Fantasyland as possible, even blurring the backgrounds somewhat while Disney and Travers rode the Carrousel.
Many of the film's exteriors were filmed at the actual Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Having been on the lot numerous times, it was fun to see how the studio was dressed for an early '60s setting.
SAVING MR. BANKS runs 125 minutes but is well paced and doesn't feel overly long. It was directed by John Lee Hancock, director of THE ROOKIE (2002) and THE BLIND SIDE (2009). The screenplay was by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Thomas Newman wrote the musical score.
Parental Advisory: SAVINGS MR. BANKS is a mild PG-13. Other than a word or two, the main reason for the rating is a young child coping with an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother.
In closing, I'd like to plug the nonprofit American Cinematheque, which classic film fans in the Greater Los Angeles/Orange County area should make it a point to join. This year's tax-deductible membership fee was $65; in return members receive passes for several free screenings, discounts on additional ticket purchases, discounts on merchandise (my son loves his black American Cinematheque t-shirt!) and local restaurants (we like the Pig & Whistle), plus free special events such as tonight's screening. There are many benefits and the ability to support a wonderful organization keeping classic films alive on big screens.