Friday, December 20, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

"It smells of chlorine... and sweat," is author P.L. Travers' (played by Emma Thompson) first comment of Los Angeles in Saving Mr. Banks, a featherweight cinematic footnote that tries to explore how how her iconic Mary Poppins became a practically perfect in every way confection for Walt Disney Studios.  Travers, in the film,  intends it as a put down, and it's not the first nor the last biting word the author shares throughout the course of the two hour plus film.  As characterized by screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, Travers is a most disagreeable figure-- a harsh, unlikable ninny whose displeasure is squarely aimed at Walt Disney who has the gall to try and seduce the stuffy, refined British harpy into signing away the rights to her beloved creation.  Her fears are that a Disney-fied adaptation would turn her books into a twinkly, sparkly confection devoid of reality, humanity or, as she eloquently puts it, "gravitas."

The cruel joke of the artificially sweetened Saving Mr. Banks is, of course, that Walt Disney did indeed make Mary Poppins and made it into one of his most charming, eternally loved properties-- the 1964 classic remains to this day the only live action film distributed by Disney to be nominated for a Best Picture nomination, and just this last week the film was inducted for preservation by the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."  Take that Mrs. Travers, of which she insists on being called.

That aside, Saving Mr. Banks as directed with a breezy professionalism by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) is not without its charms, even if it's main mission seems to extols the virtues of the mighty Disney empire.  The film is nothing if not blithely watchable, even if a certainly cruelty is extended to its female protagonist while the great Walt (played by Tom Hanks) himself is given repeated pats on the back for his tenacity and triumph over taming this hard and very particular shrew.  The irony is that while Travers objected to Disney taking the reins of her canon of characters, of whom she called family, on the notion that it would be nothing more than a silly, nattering cartoon, the film, with its candy-soaked palette and overly goosed sheen appears the farthest from reality.  It's difficult to buy the loosely embellished facts when the entire Disney PR play looks as if it was shot on a shoddy, oddly heightened studio back lot.

There's a nugget of truth, as Travers was famously ill about turning her popular series of children's books into a feature film and Disney did, certainly, try to win the author over for twenty-plus years to little avail until financial difficulties forced the Australian-born, British ex-pat to reconsider.  The film's land of make believe/character slander lies in the two-week period where Travers ventured to Los Angeles in an effort to be wooed by the Disney creative team, including screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), and mostly Walt himself.  Some of the better moments of the film involve the process, where Travers snickers away but the show must go on; there's a tinge of frothy merriment in the making of art, even if the film misses the point of a slightly more urgent and moving story of an artist's ownership of her creation.

It says nothing of Thompson's immaculate and at times wonderfully distilled performance, but the odds were stacked against her character from the very beginning and that's the biggest hurdle that Saving Mr. Banks never seems particularly interested in clearing.  Here, Travers is just a collection of aggressively unlikable tics, a nitpicking harridan who squashes everything from the casting of Dick Van Dyke to animated sequences to the color red to Mr. Banks' mustache.  Thompson, a great actress and infectious performer, manages to undo some of the nastiness of the page with inspired and emphatic character work even as the movie is explicitly on the side of Team Walt.  Hanks, for his effort, is a perfectly charming Mr. Disney, even if the film never touches any shade of immorality or less than gentlemanly behavior on his part-- a Disney film could never conceive of a characterization of its demigod as anything less than saintly.  Even so much in the casting of Hanks-- his abundant movie star everyman likability sways the proceedings.

There's a messy tale that surrounds Saving Mr. Banks, of which Hancock glosses back and forth with, as the film connects Travers' childhood to the stories she so wants to protect.  The film sidetracks between her upbringing in Australia with her inventively creative drunkard of a dad (Colin Farrell), but the sharp turns in the movie are rather awkward in execution and hackneyed in a connect-the-dots fashion.  There may really have been a miracle nanny who saved the author as a girl, as well burnishing heartbreak and a whole mess of lifelong daddy issues at bay, but the film is so steeped in family friendly cuteness and worship of the Disney magic machine that it can't quite be bothered by anything too real.

And so the film instead enlivens on the nostalgic lore of the fruits of its creation closing at the premiere of Mary Poppins at Grauman's Chinese Theater, an event on which Travers wasn't invited to but showed up nonetheless.  Resting its laurels on the magic and joie de vivre the original film brought to the world, hoping that it leaves its audience with a smile on our face and a sniffle or two.  Yet, there's startling little magic to Saving Mr. Banks and an even more startling one-note and ugly characterization of the woman behind it all.  C 

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