Saving Mr. Banks: Oscar Voters (and We) Didn’t Like

The best thing to be said about “Saving Mr. Banks,” a film about the politics and egos behind the making of Disney’s beloved musical, “Mary Poppins,” is that it makes you want to see (or revisit) the 1964 Oscar-winning film, which put Best Actress Julie Andrews on the map.

The adage they don’t make them like this anymore applies very well to “Saving Mr. Banks,” a wholesome, joyous, family friendly-fare that may be old-fashioned to a fault

Saving Mr. Banks, which is sort of a biopic of P. L. Travers, the author of the book upon which the film is based, as well as a partial look at mogul Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks), who persisted and pressured the author for years and years–until the movie got made, and then got made his way.

The problem with this picture is not just that it is conventional, playing down to the expectations of the largest possible audience, but that it looks and feels as if it were msaving_mr._banks_posterade in the early 1960s, when “Mary Poppins” was produced.

Leading man and top star Tom Hanks and Disney (both Walt and his studio operation) do not occupy the center of the narrative.   Instead, the tale focuses on P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of the books.

 

SAVING MR. BANKSWhen the film begins, Disney, whose children (especially one daughter) loved the books, has been pursuing Travers for the film rights for close to two decades.  The ever-defiant novelist has resisted the temptation (and risk) of “going Hollywood, but she begins to have a change of heart when she’s desperate for money, utterly broke.

Her first flight to Los Angeles represents a classic case of culture collision, beginning with fights with the flying attendant over her luggage.  She has been invited for a two week work with her collaborators, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), who are forced upon her and just as stubborn (maybe more) as she is.

 

saving_mr._banks_4Under Disney’s dictate, the goal is reach a necessarily compromised agreement that will please both sides, especially the author, so that Travers can finally approve of the scenario by signing the deal, whose terms are outlined in writing.

Predictably, Travers proves to be rigid, humorless, over-protective and occasionally too prickly.  She shows extreme preoccupation and then obsession with each of her characters, objects to the use of animation, resistant to the potential casting of Dick Van Dyke, who was then a popular and iconic figure.

At first, it seems like the deal would never get done and Travers would never sign the piece of paper that Disney holds close to his hear or at his top drawer.  Some of the duo’s meetings begin and end with Disney’s holding the release form only to be rejected again for yet another minor detail, and Travers storming out of his office; at one point, the rebel-woman flies back to Australia as a protest.

The film is proficiently but impersonally directed by John Lee Hancock, who’s a craftsman but not an artistic, a problem that was manifest in his previous film, “The Blind Side.”  That said, Hancock deserves credit for his resourceful casting: The 2009 film relied on Sandra Bullock, who won the Oscar for her turn, and “Saving Mr. Banks” depends almost entirely on the wit and charisma of Emma Thompson.

The flashbacks, which are inserted in a prosaic manner ad assume an overly sentimental tone, relate the story of Travers as a young girl named Helen Goff, circa 1906, and her unconditional love for her no-good, alcoholic father, Travers Banks (Colin Farrell).  The author borrowed her pen name from the first name of her father, who died young and tragically.

As Walt Disney, Hanks is serviceable in both senses of the term.  He is the other, supporting leg of the picture’s Odd Couple.  But the film belongs to Emma Thompson, who has not been allotted such a rich role in over a decade.  The only embarrassing turn in the film is rendered by Colin Farrell, who is complete miscast as the father, failing in his fake Australian accent, his interpretation as a bank worker, and especially in his drunken scenes.

Sporadically, there are moments of wit and joy.  Take for example the first encounter between Travers and her limo driver (marvelously played by the indefatigable Paul Giamatti).  Upon arrival in Los Angeles, the uniformed chauffeured tries to cheer Travers up with his greeting: “Sun came out today to say hello to you,” causing the stern and impatient Travers to snap back, “Don’t be preposterous.”

saving_mr._banks_3It’s silly to claim that the tale is predictable, because going into the picture, we know that “Mary Poppins” was a huge artistic and commercial hit for Disney.  In fact, the studio is hoping that “Saving Mr. Banks” (which does not really qualify as a musical) would create a buzz and become an Oscar contender due to its subject and famous players involved in the struggle.

It may be pointless to criticize a studio (Disney) for celebrating itself and its products, though there’s ego and perhaps element of incest about it.

In hindsight, what is interesting is that in 1964 Mary Poppins was made as a wholesome even square film, to be enjoyed by the entire family.  Yet a generation later, the movie became high-camp by younger, savvier viewers, who read the picture in a different way than their parents or grandparents.