Wednesday, December 25, 2013

'Saving Mr. Banks' from Himself

You wouldn't be wrong to look at Disney and assume that they run the planet at this point. Over the years, they've been amassing huge tracts of business landscape. They own animation juggernaut Pixar. They own and operate ABC and a host of other television programming licenses (including 80% of ESPN). They bought Marvel Entertainment, bringing an entire stable of profitable superhero franchises under their already-sizable roof. And this time last year the company purchased legendary studio Lucasfilm from science fiction scribe/legend George Lucas. That's right; Mickey Mouse owns Star Wars.

Naturally, this is an exciting time to own stock in the corporation (The Lone Ranger notwithstanding), but it's not hard to look back about fifty years, when Disney only SEEMINGLY ran the planet. It was the 1960's, when the company was much, MUCH smaller, but the affect it had on modern culture was never in doubt. Disneyland was one of the world's top tourist destinations, and every movie coming out of Disney's celebrated studio was an instant gold mine. Walt Disney himself was a beloved public figure, despite the allegations of racism and antisemitism that arose during what has become known as the Golden Age of Animation.
Get used to this face... Apparently Mrs. Travers wore it a lot.
And that's a life worth exploring on film, even if only in the minimalist, somewhat pandering efforts of Saving Mr. Banks. The movie recounts the untold story of Disney's (Tom Hanks) twenty year effort to adapt his daughters' favorite novel - "Mary Poppins" - to the big screen. Only one obstacle stands in his way: author Pamela "P.L." Travers (Emma Thompson), who is only agreeing to the deal on the basis that she has final say on the production. As heads collide, Travers reminisces to her early years in 1900's Australia, and her memories of an alcoholic, yet loving father. Gradually Disney begins to truly understand what it is that makes this novel and the character of Mary Poppins so special to this British author, though their difficulties make the production of one of cinema's most endearing family classics very, very hard to get done.
I think they hired Hanks just to deflect any controversial asides.
This feel-good picture comes from John Lee Hancock, and upon reflection it makes perfect sense that the director of The Rookie, The Alamo, and The Blind Side was on hand to crank up the inspirational vibe on this motion picture. The characters are all good folk, trying to get things done, and learning a bit about one another in the process. And in Thompson's case, that's worthy of some serious Oscar consideration; her performance as the successful, eccentric and somewhat protective author is right to draw raves, as she takes on a character that a lesser actor would have made either cringe-worthingly annoying or mind-numbingly sappy. Credit where it's due, some of that brilliance does come from the screenplay - co-penned by TV writers Kelly Marcel (Terra Nova) and Sue Smith (Mabo) - which features a wealth of witty dialogue, plenty of heartfelt moments and quite a bit of genuine emotional inflection. But it's Thompson who makes the role special, taking someone who could easily have been portrayed as a shrew - or worse, a villain - and making her sympathetic to everyone in the audience.
Much music was made on that piano, and... other stuff...
And it's not just Thompson that shines, as most all the cast put forth some of their best efforts to date. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak light up the screen as the renown songwriting duo of Richard and Robert Sherman, who created such classics as "Chim Chim Cher-ee" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", while West Wing and Cabin in the Woods fans will recognize the charming Bradley Whitford as Mary Poppins screenwriter Don DaGradi. Paul Giamatti turns in his casual "lovable schlep" as Travers' unwitting but friendly personal driver, certainly not a bad deal. And of course Tom Hanks is having a stellar year; between this and his excellent work in Captain Phillips, it's officially a comeback year for the veteran leading man. Casting him as Disney is a no-brainer, as there isn't an audience out there that cannot be pleased by Hanks' cool demeanor and earnest expressions. But the scene-stealer in Saving Mr. Banks is undoubtedly Colin Farrell, who appears in Travers' flashbacks as her troubled father. Again, it's a role (lovable drunk) that could so easily have been botched by a no-name performer, but Farrell really draws the audience in and allows us to get into the soul of his character. In return, we get to appreciate some of the best work from one of the industry's more under-appreciated actors working today.
Wait, when did this become Heidi?
Unfortunately, despite some stellar acting and more than a few feel-good moments, Saving Mr. Banks is far from a perfect product. Thompson's jokes almost always work, but the screenplay doesn't really allow anyone else (with the occasional exception of Disney himself) to get a jibe or zinger in. And when they do, well, they're usually not all that good. It's all about the interactions between the two main stars, and while the actors who play those secondary parts ARE quite good, they can't quite overcome the limitations of the script. There's also a distinct sense of whitewashing when you see the movie. Even if I hadn't been told about some of the egregious lies the movie would have you accept as fact (despite it said that she'd only published the one book, Travers actually had written quite a few books between "Poppins" and the movie's production, and she actually HATED the movie itself) I wouldn't say I could have been surprised. It's a movie BY Walt Disney Studios CONCERNING their parochial namesake; of COURSE there's going to be more than a bit of image massaging going on. The creative changes do make sense, but my issue has more to do with the blatant nature of Hancock's ham-fisted direction than it does with eschewing historical accuracy. Frankly, if Hancock was a better, more subtle director, he might have made this film into something truly exceptional.
Ah, the days when everyone wore ties...
As it stands, Saving Mr. Banks is certainly a serviceable, solid, and even quite sweet film. If you were looking for something to take your family to over the Christmas break, it's one of the stronger options out there, though Frozen is still the clear front-running option. While there's no getting past the fact that Banks is a flawed motion picture, it's got an abundance of charm and sufficient talent in front of the camera - especially in its two leads - to carry itself quite effortlessly into the hearts of any audience. Excellence it could have reached, especially in regards to its love letters to fathers, but for a sycophancy that ironically advocates forgiving troublesome dads without acknowledging it's own parent's missteps. Still, Thompson is looking at a well-deserved Oscar nomination (if not a win), and there ought to be a good deal of fun had at the movies should you decide to make this your destination.

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