Review – Just A Spoonful of Arsenic (“Saving Mr. Banks”)

What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? You get the clash of the titans in a great new film depicting the tumultuous circumstances surrounding the making of the movie, “Mary Poppins“.  Oh sure, you’ve seen this delightful family movie a dozen times, but you would have never guessed that behind the scenes was a war going on between two egotistical mad geniuses: Walt Disney and Pamela “P.L.” Travers.

Icon Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is riding high as overseer of Disneyland, The Disney Studios, and his weekly TV show, but for 20 years he’s tried in vain to acquire the film rights to the wonderful children’s book, “Mary Poppins” by English author P.L. Travers. Eager to acquire said rights, he flies Travers (Emma Thompson) out to his film studios for her signature and expertise. Oops! Bad move, Walt! She refuses to sign unless she has everything HER way!

Truth is, Travers only acquiesces after 20 years because she’s broke! Well, it turns out that she’s a nasty whirling dervish of uncompromising values, mean-spirited accolades, and no sense of humor whatsoever. Not exactly the kind of person you want co-writing a fun-filled Disney movie! She bumps heads with co-writer, Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford) and wants all their rehearsals tape recorded! For two exasperating weeks, everyone bends over backwards to please her, just so she’ll sign over the precious rights. The muti-talented Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman as Richard and B. J. Novak as Robert) are at a loss when Travers hates their music and lyrics.

Travers: “No, no, no, no. ‘Responstible’ is not a word”
Richard Sherman: “We made it up!”
Travers: “Well… UNmake it up!”

Wait till she hears, “Supercalifragilisticexpilaladocious“! Yikes! Walt is going nuts, trying everything he can to please the temperamental author by giving into her crazy ideas (“No animation! No color red!”), showing her every amenity, giving her a trip to “the Happiest Place on Earth”, and making promises he knows he’ll never keep.  Even Ralph, the studio chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), is trying his best to soften her icy heart.

Meanwhile, interspersed throughout all of this, we see Pamela constantly flash-backing to when she was a little girl (Annie Rose Buckley) in Australia where her loving, but alcoholic father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) spirals their family into the ground with his drinking. Traver’s long-suffering wife (Ruth Wilson) has to call in Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), her strict and no-nonsense sister to save them.  Aunt Ellie would eventually be the inspiration for the strict Mary Poppins character in Travers books.

We also learn that after her father dies, Pamela blames herself for his death, and that begins her spiral into self-pity and remorse that eventually leads to her present day anti-social behavior and callous disregard for others. Back at the House of Mouse, Travers goes ballistic after learning about animated penguins in the movie and retreats back to England where Disney quickly follows her. Finally figuring her out and her back story, Disney gives her an emotionally charged plea that is Oscar worthy material for Tom Hanks.

That does it. She signs over the rights and Disney does the movie exactly the way HE wanted to do, with or without Travers okay. The film premieres at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood in 1964 and Travers is NOT invited… but she shows up anyway, much to Disney’s shock and surprise! Her reaction? She HATES it!

The end credits roll with real photos of the movie premiere showing Walt and Travers all happy and content (and looking alot older than they are depicted in the movie). Plus there are sketches and an actual taped playback recording of Travers giving her dislike of a certain scene.

This are really Hanks and Thompson’s Oscar-worthy roles. Hanks has the same inflection and cadence of Disney’s real Southern drawl while Thompson is all emotion and bluster until she softens and breaks apart like a little girl. A fine screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith and directed by John Lee Hancock, this movie took me back to the 60’s when I first saw “Mary Poppins“. To see what went on in that room makes you shake your head and wonder how this movie was ever made! An excellent capture of the historical moments that went into making a classic family film.

And I don’t know how, but they even got Disneyland of the 60’s recreated! Nice. Very nice.

The Big Picture (1989)

Getting a movie made is one thing, but how far would you compromise to get it done, especially if you wrote it? In a little movie that came and went under the radar, this little piece of film Heaven is brought to you by the boys of “This Is Spinal Tap“. That’s right, directed Christopher Guest and written by Guest, Michael McKean, and Michael Varhol, this simple tale deals with an up and coming film maker named Nick Chapman (Kevin Bacon) who’s just won a student film award for a short film.

Impressed by his film, a movie executive (J. T. Walsh) offers Nick a deal to make his screenplay a reality: a character-driven drama taking place in a cabin during the winter season. A director’s dream come true! What could possible could wrong? Nick’s got a nice girlfriend, Susan (Emily Longstreth) by his side and his best friend, Emmett (McKean) is always there to lend a hand.

But once the picture is started, the studios start to “suggest” story changes that Nick is fearful to say “no” to. We even see (in his mind) the characters themselves changing from female to male, location to location, and storyline to storyline based on the suggestions. He reluctantly gives in and filming is underway.

But the more the Nick sees his vision corrupted, the more his dream just disappears into thin air because of the corporate changes he agreed to. But hey, the money’s good! I mean, it’s REALLY good! So good, in fact, that soon Nick embraces the script changes and is seduced by the dark side of the Hollywood force, changing on his friends and family. Yes, he sells out and he doesn’t even care.

Adding to the tinsel in his eyes is Nick’s new smarmy agent (Martin Short), a splashy starlet (Teri Hatcher), and a wicked new sports car. Everything is going along SO good that Nick finally gets a dose of reality in the guise of Lydia (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a kooky but loyal friend and old classmate. She convinces him do direct a black and white music video for a nothing little band and in doing so, Nick realizes how much he misses doing things his way.

Sure, the ending is predictable and tied up with a nice little red bow, but it doesn’t matter that you saw it coming a mile away, it’s just quirky little movie with a great cast having fun and poking fun at Hollywood and the Hollywood “system”. I’m sure this sort of thing has happened in real life somewhere, but you decide if giving in is right or wrong and where your ‘values compass’ lies.