Monday, January 6, 2014

Review - Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks takes us behind the development of the Disneyfication of the Disneyfication of Mary Poppins (how meta!), the movie rights to which author P.L. Travers was notoriously resistant to sign over.
Emma Thompson plays Travers ('Mrs.' Travers, as she'll quickly tell you she prefers to be addressed), at the end of her rope and in need of money, urged by her agent to let Walt Disney Studios turn her beloved childrens book Mary Poppins into a feature film. She is loathe to let her precious creation become trivialized by the kid-friendly brand, but reluctantly agrees to travel to L.A. to work with Disney's writers and tunesmiths. Among her many insistences are that the film not be a musical, not star Dick Van Dyke, and contain no animation nor the color red. As history tells us, Disney reneged – or at least changed Travers' mind – on those stipulations.

If you're at all a fan of the resulting classic that emerged from all these creative disputes (I certainly am), it may puzzle you as to why Mary Poppins' original creator would be so resistant to what would become such a wonderful and enduring screen adaptation. But not to worry: Saving Mr. Banks offers up a tidy psychological explanation for Travers' attachment to her characters via flashbacks to her turbulent childhood in the outback town of Allora, Australia. The film manages to shoehorn many Poppins allusions into these sequences, which primarily explores her relationship with her severely depressed father (Colin Farrell), who puts on a brave smile and feeds his daughter's imagination while secretly drinking through his pain.
Thompson is reliably droll as Travers, playing up her stubborn priggishness for laughs, but without quite undermining her sense of artistic integrity. And by all accounts, she had a lot of it. Regardless of your opinion of Saving Mr. Banks, it's not hard to imagine Travers spinning in her grave at the thought of a movie now being made about her troubled youth and her ordeal with Disney.

Conversely, it's not hard to imagine Walt Disney doing cartwheels in his cryogenic chamber at the thought of coming across as ineffably warm and winning as he does through Tom Hanks' slick performance. But such hagiography is to be expected from a film produced by the Mouse House itself. When we do finally meet Walt (they're all on a first name basis at the “happiest place on earth”), he's backlit by a glimmering trophy shelf stuffed with Emmys and Oscars, as though to beckon Academy members, “Vote for Saving Mr. Banks!”
As family entertainment with a cheery disposition, Saving Mr. Banks is pretty touch-and-go. The film's best scenes – involving Travers' work with screenwriter Don DaGradi and the songwriting Sherman brothers (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak) – are worth the price of a matinee, but those persistent flashbacks aren't always integrated elegantly.

At one point, Travers admonishes a Mickey Mouse doll left on her hotel room pillow by placing it in the corner and berating, “You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety.” One wonders if the irony of that line might be lost on its own authors, screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, whose script goes about its SUBTEXT in decidedly unsubtle fashion. Whether through the jarring exposition of Travers' backstory, or through an extended third-act monologue in which Walt becomes a Freudian sage and bluntly spells out all of Travers' theretofore unspoken insecurities, it isn't a piece of storytelling that seems to give its audience much credit.

Don't get me wrong. There's enough to enjoy in Saving Mr. Banks, particularly for Mary Poppins devotees. However, there's a specialness to this story that just never quite makes it to the screen. Its charms are not diminished by the missteps, but they are diluted by them.

**1/2 out of ****


  1. I personally really liked it. But maybe that's the Disney geek inside me talking.

    You didn't hear it from me, but I heard that the Academy loved Saving Mr. Banks. So, don't be surprised to see a lot of nominations come for the film. But then again, that prediction could come back to bite me in the ass.

  2. The lion's share of nominations for 'Mr. Banks' have gone to Emma Thompson's performance. Few for Hanks or even the Picture itself. Even though the film has an edge as that 'inside Hollywood' picture, do you think it's possible it may not make the Academy's top ten?

    1. First off, I doubt the Academy will actually give us a slate of ten. Nine is statistically more likely. And I do think it's one of those films on the bubble. Entirely possible it misses out.

    2. With that, I have to say the nine slots is frustrating. I believe if the Academy is going to opt for ten slots, they should fill them out with good films. But I agree, it may very well continue to be nine again...what a shame.