SAVING MR. BANKS
BY CHRISTOPHER HASKELL
MARCH 22, 2014
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a film about Walt Disney made by Walt Disney Pictures, so anyone looking for a rich and dynamic look at the man’s life and especially his involvement with getting the rights to “Mary Poppins” from author P.L. Travers, will be sadly mistaken. Were there animated dancing penguins involved, this would feel much like the film that Disney was trying to make and Travers was trying to avoid. The real story of the film, in my opinion, is told in the flashbacks of Travers as a young lady, with her father, Travers Goff (played wonderfully by Colin Farrell). Happy-go-lucky and a huge advocate for imagination, Travers is a closet drunk and despite his wife’s sharp glances and questions of missing work, Travers and young Pamela are best friends. But when he becomes sick and Pamela’s aunt comes to take care of the house, she dreams of a magical nanny that can fix everything.
The most impacting line of the film was displayed in the marketing for the film, in which Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) mistakes the meaning of the book, believing Mary Poppins is there to save the children when, by way of the title of the film, the meaning is really about saving the father, Mr. Banks. Pamela’s acclaimed story had been the apple of Disney’s eye since it’s publications, but alluding him for years, the film picks up with her being coaxed into flying to Los Angeles and helping (or not helping) to adapt the book into a screenplay, with song and dance, and yes, even animation. Scoffing every chance she gets, Emma Thompson plays Pamela “P.L.” Travers with dignity and range that is needed to get her across. Her character earns a representation for being hard and having not signed over the rights, she has full say throughout the process, down to the color of someone’s hat. What feels too much like a work of Disney is that despite the continued conflict, there’s always a lightness to the performances and the plot, with no angry words or frustrations, but simply more and more avenues to overcome their disputes. Walt Disney wins, Pamela works through her issues, and there’s no real severity to anyone’s actions or feelings towards anything. We know “Mary Poppins” got made, so ultimately we know where the film is heading, but the film feels more like fluff than something grounded in reality.
The cast in play fits the dream-like quality of the film as well, with Tom Hanks bringing the joyful, poster boy Disney to the big screen, nothing more, nothing less, while Emma Thompson does a tremendous job with facial expressions and an overall meandering quality that carries this performance, despite a screenplay that works against her. The supporting cast is also a little too joyful and not to key, with Paul Giamatti playing the dopey chauffeur that hardly flinches as Pamela berates him and Kathy Baker, as Disney’s executive secretary, who does little while Disney struggles with his sexism (which is never really referred to). Jason Schwartzman can stand out of the pack, as one of the composers of the musical, with his normal schmaltzy demeanor that fits this type of film perfectly. Knowing full well what I was getting into with “Saving Mr. Banks,” I was unsurprised by my general lack of emotional investment, with a film that plays it safely across the board. Life action Disney films are a hard sell as I grow older, with at least two films coming out this year that look more for a homegrown family rather than anyone interested in a deep and enriching story. How “Mary Poppins” got made and the process behind it is very interesting to me, but not when it’s clouded with fairy dust, which is exactly how “Saving Mr. Banks” is portrayed.
December 13, 2013
John Lee Hancock
Walt Disney Pictures
(for thematic elements including some unsettling images)
Annie Rose Buckley