Saving Mr. Banks

I have always felt that all the great, old, gossipy legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age are best left to be used as fodder for non-fiction books, or anecdotes in behind-the-scenes documentaries.  The recent trend of turning these oft-told show biz tales into lightweight historical fiction movies, however, doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Last year gave us Hitchock (about the making of Psycho), the year before we got My Week with Marilyn (about Lawrence Olivier’s troubles working with Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl). This year’s Saving Mr. Banks tells a highly romanticized version of the end of Walt Disney’s infamous twenty-year negotiation with author P.L. Travers to acquire the rights to her series of Mary Poppins books, which enable the film that that would turn out to be the best live action movie Disney ever personally made.

It’s a forgone conclusion that, as a film, Mr. Banks does not come anywhere close to the caliber of Mary Poppins.  It's also safe to assume the real Mrs. Travers would have HATED this depiction of herself even more than she hated what Disney did with her beloved Poppins.  However, if taken as a simple holiday entertainment, the film works quite well and succeeds far better than either Hitchcock or Marilyn at bringing to life the imagined world of larger than life entertainment icons. Emma Thompson’s masterful performance makes the broad caricature of P.L. Travers that the screenwriters and director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) have fashioned into a credible and captivating persona. Tom Hanks does a decent job as Disney, appropriately underplaying the role, while still portraying somewhat of the magical, fantasy figure this film wants him to be.

For a film produced by Walt Disney Pictures, Saving Mr. Banks is surprisingly dark and melancholy--which any honest account of the back-stage world of the Disney dream factory should be, since the great producer had many personal demons he tried to silence by creating his eternally happy fantasy worlds. But Walt is a fairly minor character in Saving Mr. Banks, which splits its screen time between Travers during her brief involvement in the writing of the Mary Poppins script, and her childhood growing up in rural Australia. It’s surprising that the outback flashbacks work so well, as this type of psychological expositional normally rings false in biographical movies. But the filmmakers wisely devote enough time to these formative scenes to make them compelling and thematically relevant, not simple explanations for the main character’s behavior. (I think the many folks out there who believe that no film title should ever begin with a gerund will agree, after viewing the movie, that Saving Mr. Banks is an appropriate and astute moniker).

Unfortunately the scenes of Travers working with composers Richard and Robert Sherman (played adequately by Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak) and the composite screenwriter character played by Bradley Whitford (who has the name of one of Poppins co-writers, Don DaGradi, but is basically the same person Whitford always plays) feel less authentic. It is almost imposable to depict the writing process in a movie, even as amusingly combative a collaboration as this one was, and though much of what’s in these scenes is taken verbatim from audio recordings and firsthand accounts from Richard Rogers, they’re the weakest aspects of the film. Screenwriter Kelly Marcel fares far better at fashioning imagined scenes between Travers and Disney based on their extensive written correspondence. This is a big studio film and we expect its principle pleasure to come from seeing its two stars face off in well-scripted, one-on-one encounters. In this regard, the film does not disappoint.

Directed by John Lee Hancock
Produced by Alison Owen, Ian Collie, and Philip Steuer

Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith

With: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Bigham, Kathy Baker, and Rachel Griffiths

Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Editing: Mark Livolsi
Music: Thomas Newman

Runtime: 125 min
Release Date: 20 December 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1