A film review by Craig J. Koban January 10, 2014 

SAVING MR. BANKS jjj
 

2013, PG-13, 126 mins.

 

Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers  /  Tom Hanks as Walt Disney  /  Colin Farrell as Travers Robert Goff  /  Paul Giamatti as Ralph  /  Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi  /  Jason Schwartzman as Richard Sherman  /  B. J. Novak as Robert Sherman  /  Kathy Baker as Tommie  /  Rachel Griffiths as Aunt Ellie  /  Ruth Wilson as Margaret Goff

Directed by John Lee Hancock  /  Screenplay by Kelly Marcel

SAVING MR. BANKS is a mostly involving, but somewhat peculiar chronicle of Walt Disney’s decades long odyssey to bring the 1964 film MARY POPPINS to the silver screen.  With a flashback structure the rickshaws (sometimes fluidly, sometimes not so much) back and forth from the past to the present, we bare witness to the life of P.L. Travers, an Australian novelist, actress, and writer than emigrated to England, after which time she began penning the MARY POPPINS novels in 1933.  Since the books’ inception, Disney salivated at the chance of securing film rights, but the obstinate Travers proved to be a resolutely hard sell.  She did not want her cherished books turned into “silly cartoons.” 

The film mostly focuses during the weeks of 1961 when Disney (Tom Hanks) decided to stage a full court press and invite Travers (Emma Thompson) to his studios in Hollywood in an attempt to bridge their creative differences.  Most Crucially, Disney wanted to secure her signature on a contract that would allow his studio to finally bring her tale of the flying nanny into their fold.  With sales of her work slowing down and money in short supply, Travers’ agent urges her to take Disney up on his offer, which she initially declines.  Yet, with ample pressure, she does acquiesce, and decides to make the journey from London to Burbank to meet the iconic movie mogul.  It becomes very apparent very early on that Travers is a toxically anti-social traveler and, more specifically, takes an immediate dislike to California within minutes of landing.  “It smells like Chlorine and sweat,” she tells her chauffer (Paul Giamatti).  

Not even meeting the gregarious and genuinely warm-hearted Disney thaws Travers (she becomes really miffed at the massive amount of Disney swag that he left her in her lavish hotel suite).  She demands to Disney that, before she signs her life’s work away, the she will have a final say in the product, right down to the most minute of details (at one point, she insists that the color red can't be seen anywhere in the film version).  Tempers really flare when she hooks up with the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), especially when it’s revealed that there will indeed be songs in the film, which she considers an artistic betrayal of the essence of her novels.  With tensions mounted – and Disney’s patience for Travers’ oftentimes-unreasonable requests dwindling– it seems that bringing MARY POPPINS to big screen life will be an impossibility.  History, however, proved otherwise. 

 

 

SAVING MR. BANKS, as previously stated, shows Travers’ life in flashback, as we are taken back 1906 Australia, when the then 7-year-old Travers (Annie Rose Buckley) found herself and her family relocated to the remote outback at her father’s (Colin Farrell) request.  Her father was a banker, but battled with a hellish alcohol addiction.  The initial sense of adventure into the unknown for Travers and her family peaks her creative interests, and her father certainly was a key figure in inspiring her imagination.  Yet, no matter how much love he bestowed upon her, this good-intentioned paternal figure succumbed to his addictions, leaving Travers and her family deeply disillusioned.  Even though these sequences – which are many – are significant in embellishing Travers as a character in the present, the film’s juxtaposing of moments from 1906 Australia and 1961 Burbank, California is not always executed with care, leaving SAVING MR. BANKS feeling a tad lopsided at times. 

The real interest in the film, though, is in seeing the iron willed and, frankly, inordinately foul tempered Travers butt heads with the calm and collected Disney, and SAVING MR. BANKS does a reasonably good job of relaying just how difficult and thorny the whole creative process of making movies – in committee – can become.  Director John Lee Hancock (THE BLIND SIDE and the terribly underrated THE ALAMO) does a bravura job in terms of grounding us in the 60’s Disney-era period details of the film and, in turn, gives us a reasonably compelling look inside as to how the Disney corporation works with people on the inside and out.  If the film were to have a message it would be that Disney believed that any artistic roadblocks – no matter where they originated from – could be overcome via the spirit of collaboration.  Travers, alas, never made this easy. 

Hanks and Thompson make for a highly effective tandem in showing the coldly intense relationship and the inevitable thawing of it that occurred between Disney and Travers.  Hanks may not look anything like Disney, but he more than makes up for this in immersing himself completely in his everlasting sense of positive energy and good will.  To be fair, Disney was both an artist and a shrewd businessman, and securing MARY POPPINS was as much of a commerce move as it was of one born out of creative necessity, but Hanks shows him as a powerfully soft-spoken man of deep persuasion and easily likeable charm.  Thompson has the trickier role in making Travers a woman that we initially despise, but gradually learn to understand considering the life she's led.  Thompson captures her unwavering defensiveness, her guarded pride, and her melancholy over her even more guarded upbringing with cunning precision.  Through the film’s story, you gain a sense of why she became the woman she did, which initially allows us to warm over to her prerogative about selling her most precious work. 

For as supremely acted and good looking as SAVING MR. BANKS is, there are a number of troubling and nagging paradoxes that plague the film.  The film is, yes, made by Walt Disney Pictures, and it’s pretty clear that any presentation of Disney would have had to secure their permission.  Yet, much of SAVING MR. BANKS feels like its either soft-pedaling the material or, even more obviously, sugar-coating the actual relationship between Disney and Travers, which was, no doubt, considerably more heated than what’s present on screen here.  The film is a bit false in showing Travers' acceptance of the MARY POPPINS films (she, in fact, despised many aspects of the film after attending its premiere and swore off of further film adaptations of her work).  I can certainly understand the insistence of Disney to not want to engage in overt corporate character assassination here, but there’s no denying that the overall story in SAVING MR. BANKS has a watered-down approach in fear of making the company come off poorly.  Disney, at times, almost comes off as too lineate and patient with Travers in the film; certainly, their real relationship was not as rosy and amicable. 

One last thing to ponder: MARY POPPINS turns 50 in 2014, which leaves SAVING MR. BANKS appearing as a slick bit of pre-publicity of the 1964 film’s anniversary.  For as exemplarily well made and impeccably acted as SAVING MR. BANKS is – not to mention that it provides for a mostly compelling character drama as to the inner workings of its personas – the film still feels like it’s patting itself (and the company that made it) on the back a bit too obviously and distractingly.  Hancock makes a strongly crafted Hollywood film and Hanks and Thompson are magic on screen together in it (Farrell’s strong supporting work is also noteworthy), but I fear that a deeper investigation into the fractured working relationship between Disney and Travers is only superficially presented here.  

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