Mark Reviews Movies

Saving Mr. Banks


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Lee Hancock

Cast: Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Kathy Baker, Rachel Griffiths

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including some unsettling images)

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 12/13/13 (limited); 12/20/13 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 13, 2013

It's likely that a good chunk of Saving Mr. Banks is baloney. The setup is sound and, based on the brief snippet of an archival audio recording that plays over the closing credits, based on evidence.

That setup is that author P.L. Travers insisted upon script approval for Walt Disney's planned film adaptation of the stories of her most famous character Mary Poppins before she would sign over the rights to her work. She was skeptical of what a Disney-produced Poppins would be, and as a result, Travers apparently fought and argued and nitpicked and refused to compromise throughout the pre-production process, which began in 1961.

While this sounds like a perfectly rational and understandable response from an artist who wants to retain the integrity of her creation and fears what someone of whom she's already suspicious might do ruin her vision, it seems like a concept that is entirely foreign to screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. After all, this isn't just some nobody of a movie producer. This is Walt Disney, the man who created a mouse and built an empire from that creation. He revolutionized animation. He crafted a magic kingdom where children could be themselves and adults could children again. How could anyone not believe him?

That's just one of the fallacies of bias on display here. As played by tha loveable everyman Tom Hanks (in a bit of loaded casting), Walt—and he insists that everyone calls him Walt—is everyone to everybody. He's the ideal boss who smiles and praises and offers treats. He's a benevolent creator who hands out autographed photographs to his adoring fans as he wanders through his theme park. He's a loving father who has been trying for decades to make a movie of his daughters' favorite bedtime story because he made a promise to them.

All of this may be true, but then there's the portrayal of the other artist in this conflict. Miss Travers (Emma Thompson)—and she insists that everyone use the honorific—is an emotional, psychological, and financial wreck of a woman, who only considers Walt's request because her income is weakening. Haunted by the memory of her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and a victim of multiple personality quirks (She throws the pears from a gift basket out the window of her hotel room because they remind her of her dad), she's a character with has a completely reasonable objection to the treatment of her work who's made into a helpless mess.

Beyond the questionable treatment of Travers' character, the problem with her back story is that reveals the screenplay's inherent distrust of the simplicity of the scenario: the battle between two strong-willed artists who do not want to give any ground on their respective vision. That's a formidable conflict, and despite whatever reservations we might have about how unbalanced the scales are for the two combatants, that struggle is a source of some substantial behind-the-scenes drama.

When the film—as it often does—puts Miss Travers in a room with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the music-and-lyrics team of brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), there's genuine creative tension on display. Yes, the Disney team is seen as an infinitely patient bunch of men who are graciously accommodating the strange woman in the room, but that's only their perspective. Whether intentional or not, the real person to admire here is Miss Travers, who storms into the workplace of successful and influential men, unafraid to speak the harsh and plain truth.

When she learns that Dick Van Dyke is to play the Cockney chimneysweep, she laughs (Of course, she turns out to be right). Not a single detail of the script or design goes without her disapproval in a knowing power play, and on the few occasions she approves with the writing team's initial choice, they aren't relieved but are instead a little proud that they've received her blessing. Perhaps it's just Thompson's performance, which refuses to yield the strength that's driving this character even when she is intended to show weakness or foolishness, that leaves the impression, but nevertheless, it's there. She knows she's on the losing side of the entire situation, but she won't stop fighting the system she believes will destroy her creation with a waddle of animated, dancing penguins.

Gradually, we come accept this character. Whether or not it's accurate to portray Travers as a woman on the verge of nervous breakdown because the movie version of her books might change a minor character and inflame her daddy issues  (Personally, I doubt it), the conceit, like the central fight over ideas, works as drama. It's of the maudlin and emotionally manipulative variety, yes, but it still works. If we accept the characterization, Miss Travers' growing but still reluctant embrace of that old Disney magic—culminating in a jubilant scene in which she dances with Don to "Let's Go Fly a Kite"—is endearing. Again, it all depends on Thompson, who knows how far to push the character's change of heart while suggesting that it's just a momentary lapse in judgment.

There's plenty in the film that is worthy of mistrust, but Saving Mr. Banks is also full of sincerity and, when it's at its best, offers a valuable look inside the difficulties of the collaborative creative process. If there's one thing that's clear, though, it's that those recordings of the meetings between the author and the filmmakers be part of a more objective project about this material.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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