Saving Mr. Banks, is another Oscar contender that opened widely in the past week. Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney, while Emma Thompson (a natural choice over Meryl Streep because of her Nanny McPhee stint) plays the enigmatic Australian author of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers (aka Helen Lyndon Goff). Although from a marketing standpoint the title seemed designed to draw in and on Hanks (playing on his name and his Oscar-winning title Saving Private Ryan from 1998), the title actually refers to the father’s name in Travers’ book.
The Disney-produced film adaptation of Travers’ 1934 book was the source of much contention between the studio head and author, but would go on to win multiple Oscars, including those for Julie Andrews and the songwriting Sherman Brothers.
Ironically, although the first film I saw in the theater was Disney’s The Jungle Book , I would fail to see the full-Mary Poppins until after the birth of my own children. My original memory of David Tomlinson, who plays Mr. Banks in that film, was as the villainous, yellow Apollo GT-driving Peter Thorndyke in Disney’s live-action hit The Love Bug (and third highest grossing film of 1968). So I knew all along that this actor is much more than a marketing cipher for a corporate Oscar-drive. That said, I bring you his self-referential ‘Mr. Banks’-style performance in a film that is unique in its own right: Wombling Free (1977), also starring England’s costumed answer to the Muppets, Smurfs and Banana Splits combined: The Wombles.
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The Wombles were the creation of English author Elisabeth Beresford, who came up with the name and began conceptualizing her series of books almost exactly 45 years ago after one of her children mispronounced ‘Wimbledon’ as ‘Wombleton’ during a 1968 Boxing Day walk on the town ‘Common.’ Beresford would use her family as models for the small anthropomorphic creatures resembling something between a mole and a raccoon, with character-defining accouterments. Reflecting the strong hippie vibes of the day, Wombles live communally (somewhat like the Smurfs), an ongoing theme of conservation and recycling runs through their stories, and they love to sing and dance.
In a short time the books’ popularity saw them portrayed in costume on television and on stage, where the Beach Boys-meets Glam songs written for them by Mike Batt, such as ‘The Wombling Song” and the Flaming Lips-ish “Womble of the Universe” took them to the Top of the Pops (more recently — 2011 — the Glastonbury Festival), and respected musicians such as Chris Spedding, Ray Cooper, Clem Cattini and Steeleye Span donned the Wombleskin. In this regard, they were a prototype for future hip but world-conscious children’s shows like the BBC’s Balamory and Teletubbies, and the more recent, stateside, Yo Gabba Gabba.
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Tomlinson is fully committed on many levels as Roland Frogmorton, as is his family portrayed by Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxime from the Harry Potter films) and the almost Ari Upp-ish wild redhead Bonnie Langford. Great holiday entertainment for the little ones, while the you check out the adult behind-the-scenes battles of Hanks and Thompson in Banks.
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