Monday, December 30, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
Dir. John Lee Hancock

2.5 out of 5

Some movies are kind enough to save us the burden of interpretation and spell out their agendas clearly in a single unifying scene: a Rosetta Scene.  In Saving Mr. Banks, it's a late-night conversation between Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers, specifically a heartfelt monologue about the purpose of storytelling.  After struggling to convince and cajole the uptight Travers into signing over the film rights to her stories, Disney explains that the artist's job is to "restore order with imagination."  Though he's talking about Travers' ability to turn her memories of a difficult upbringing in rural Australia into a series of beloved children's books, it's an apt description of the film's mission to reshape the past into a fuzzier and family-friendly image.

Saving Mr. Banks promises a juicy tale about the arduous development of the classic Disney movie musical Mary Poppins, but instead delivers a tidy treatise about childhood trauma nuzzled within a diverting slice of corporate infotainment.  A down-on-her-luck Travers (Emma Thompson) accepts an invitation to supervise the development of a Poppins film with the understanding that she will have script approval.  However, she's immediately displeased with everything about the production, most of all the overly familiar, jokey manner of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), a man she views as a purveyor of frivolity and empty whimsy.  Travers embarks on an uneasy collaboration with Disney's creative team - screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers/lyricists Bob and Richard Sherman (B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) - but her imperious demeanor masks the true reasons behind her opposition to Disney's interpretation of her characters.

The film is well acted on all fronts, even when the performers appear to be marking time.  Thompson spends almost the entire film in a state of suspended mortification.  The script takes far too long to tease out her backstory in flashbacks featuring Colin Farrell as Travers' impulsive alcoholic father.  And while those portions are considerably dark for a family feature, Saving Mr. Banks is ultimately a safe stroll down a memory lane that's littered with eggshells.  It's naive to think that Walt Disney would be anything less than the shining hero of a Disney-produced movie, but the filmmakers bend over backwards to depict him as the antidote to Travers' corroded, bitter psyche, as if the author had just been waiting for him to reveal the halo atop his head.  At least Hanks is a perfect fit as Disney, twinkling away with the avuncular charm that defined his public persona (and, by most accounts, his private one as well).

Even though some of its takeways are dubious at best and slightly insulting to Travers herself, Saving Mr. Banks is exactly what it sets out to be - good, clean, Uncle Walt-approved fun.  Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) keeps the sentimentality at a tolerable level, mainly thanks to Thompson's dry delivery of acerbic one-liners and his handling of the gradually-developing friendship between Travers and her personal driver (Paul Giamatti).  Squandering a novel premise in favor of reinforcing the company line, Saving Mr. Banks is partially redeemed by small moments showing that these artists, though endowed with godlike powers of emotional transubstantiation, are indeed human after all.

1 comment:

  1. No one with working eyes will be tricked into believing that Hanks is the spitting image of old Uncle Walt. But like the best actors, Hanks uses mannerisms and practiced vocal inflections to capture his subject's essence.
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