[Review] - Saving Mr. Banks

Courtesy of Disney.
Sometimes I feel that people associated with the lives of those being biopiced shouldn't have anything to do with the film. Emotions can get in the way of telling an unbiased story. However, due to copyright, this can sometimes be impossible (I imagine the only reason there hasn't been a Jim Henson film made yet is the sheer amount of legal wrangling it will inevitably involve). And this goes double for corporations, who do not want to see their corporate brand tarnished by a negative portrayal, even if it is part of the long past and established history.

It would have been impossible to make Saving Mr. Banks at any other studio, especially considering the judicious amount of material borrowed from Mary Poppins. But beyond that, the House of Mouse would never left anyone else take on part of the life of Walt. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let even themselves show Walt as anything other than glorified, for fear that it would reflect badly on the history of the company. So, while Saving Mr. Banks has a lot working for it, and is filled to the brim with talent, there is the constant reminder that we are watching a Disney film, with a Disney message, telling a Disney version of the story.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that

While billed as the story of Disney wooing PL Travers into giving him the film rights to Mary Poppins, Disney (Tom Hanks) is much more of a secondary character in the film. The thrust of the narrative is Travers, played by Emma Thompson, and her steadfast refusal to part with what she deems to be part of herself. It is Travers story, which is only fair considering that the average person has probably never heard of PL Travers, or at least knew nothing about her. Her stiff-upper-lippiness drives the comedy of the tale, with her increasingly erratic and obfuscating demands that the film be made exactly as she wants, knowing full well that Disney would never agree. And this is where the Disneyifcation starts to take hold. Over the course of the film, the "Disney magic" beings to wear her down, as she is slowly seduced by the songs and heart. While in real life, she obviously agreed, it was probably a lot more out of necessity than romance.

But this is a movie, and there is a difference, as I often note, between truth and accuracy. As long as the film is confident, and consistent, it doesn't matter what really happened. And so, in that regard, despite being overly sentimental, and almost overpoweringly nostalgic, Mr. Banks is a good film. It's not a great film, though occasionally, when it isn't too busy playing karaoke with the Poppins song book, there are hints that it could have been. Away from the studio's influence, it might have been a much harder, more emotionally constructive (rather than emotionally manipulative) film. I would compare the final result to those Disney produced sports films, where underdogs triumph under adversity (a trailer for their most recent such film, Million Dollar Arm, was attached to my print). It's a lot of humourous situations, a fair amount of inspirational speeches, and a tear inducing conclusion. It's schmaltz, but thanks to the cast, it's high grade schmaltz.

Thompson reminds viewers that she, coming from the same group that produced Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, is as adept at comedy as she is drama. Hanks reminds us that he can disappear into a character (though, he is quickly approaching the time in his career where he is playing "Tom Hanks Playing so-and-so"). Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and Paul Giamatti each bolster the film, with the latter being the most transparent inspirational Disney character, but the actor is so damned likable (and versatile) that you forgive it. B.J. Novak gets little to do as the more underwritten of the two composers, but Melanie Paxson as Walt's assistant gets more than a couple opportunities to impress.

The most interesting part of the film, and sadly the least developed, are the flashbacks/dream sequences/memories of Travers' childhood in turn of the century Australia, featuring Colin Farrell as her alcoholic father, and Ruth Wilson (Luther) as her desperate mother. Again, this is the Disneyfied version of an alcoholic drinking himself into destitution, and a mother driven to the brisk of helplessness. So it's more of an emotional paper-cut then it is a proper laceration. This was just as, if not more, interesting than the comedic follies with the movie deal, and I wanted desperately for the film to go into more detail. Sadly, it settles from broad strokes. Enough so that we know that Travers had a sad childhood, rather than diving deeper into those pains. Wilson especially isn't allowed to explore her character, with scant few lines even, and little to no exploration herself. Despite being in obvious pain, it's a pain we apparently don't need to know about, because the titular Mr. Banks is in pain enough for everyone.

But all the faults tend to fall on the production side of things. This is clearly a specific version of the story that the studio wanted to tell. When the script is allowed to escape those confines, it is witty, clever and fun. And even gets in a couple jabs at the obvious studio control it's being forced under. John Lee Hancock, who is old hand at the emotionally exploitative films that Disney loves, is a steady and traditional hand at the camera, which means he doesn't try anything new or revolutionary. And it does have a wonderful speech at the end, delivered by Hanks, about the value of storytelling, which is a subject near and dear to my heart, so for a moment I allowed sentimentality to cloud my opinion.

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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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