December 21, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (12/21/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

Several months back, when I heard that Saving Mr. Banks was on the way, I figured it would be a movie that's right up my alley. The picture tells the true Hollywood story of how author P.L. Travers, after 20 years of persuasion, finally agreed to let Walt Disney produce a feature film based on her books, resulting in 1964's Mary Poppins.

I saw Poppins what seems like several hundred times as a kid, and that - combined with my interest in stories about old Hollywood moviemaking, to say nothing of my fascination with Walt Disney himself (not his movies as much as the man, the company he built, and the cultural phenomena he presided over) - all caused me to think that this would be a grand slam for me. I love Emma Thompson (who plays Travers), Tom Hanks seemed like the perfect guy to play Disney, and I initially thought it was an interesting bonus that the production had access to all the Disney archives and records, and that they got Richard M. Sherman, one of the original songwriters on Poppins, onboard as a consultant.

Nevertheless, the whole thing left me a bit cold… Mainly, I thought the picture vilifies her a bit too much, and sanctifies him in a way that makes him a lot less interesting than Walt Disney himself probably actually was. Exempting that, though, I thought the picture committed the gravest of all movie sins: It was a little boring for significant stretches. While there are flashbacks aplenty which attempt to show where some of Travers' ideas and inspiration might have come from, it's shockingly light on getting much into Walt Disney himself (apart from him saying that he "promised his daughters" that he'd make Mary Poppins into a movie some 20 years earlier a few times).

The film doesn't seem to be about Travers and Disney coming to understand each other and forming a mutual respect, as much as it seems to be about Disney wearing Travers down. The film rightly tells us that she only considered finally approving a Poppins film in 1961 in the first place because her books had stopped selling and she really needed the money. The ending of this movie acknowledges that she didn't much like the finished film and never allowed the Disney company to produce another picture based on her work. If all that is true, what exactly is our story here? That Travers feared the worst when Hollywood came knocking, and walked away with her expectations largely met?

I'm guessing that most who see this movie are a bit like me: They saw (and loved) the Mary Poppins film as a kid, but know very little about Travers herself, if anything. Nevertheless, the structure of Mr. Banks is set up so that we're constantly flashing back to Travers' childhood in Australia, where her father (played by Colin Farrell) imbues her with a sense of imagination and wonder, while his alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies simultaneously rip the family apart.

The flashback scenes seemed haphazardly placed and ineffective during the first half of the movie in particular… They appear almost at random. In fact, for a time, the movie just seems to be indiscriminately alternating scenes that take place in the "present" (read: 1961) with scenes from Travers' childhood without a clear design in mind. About an hour in, the film starts to make it interesting: A scene where Travers listens to a demo performance of "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" (the film's "greed is good" musical equivalent, as performed by the board of directors at the bank that Mr. Banks works at) is skillfully intercut with Farrell giving a speech at an event for the bank he worked at in flashback Australia, intensively illustrating how constrained he felt by his job.

My reaction to such a powerful scene was two-fold: On one hand, I was pleased that they finally got the film's awkward flashback structure to work in such an effective way, but at the same time, I was unsure if such a strange, intense moment was really right for this movie. The constant, highly-reflective nature of the flashbacks kind of suggest Travers is haunted and tortured by her past in a way that doesn't fit Thompson's performance. Her subsequent outburst in the "present day" half of this scene that I'm talking about kind of suggests a woman on the verge of a complete emotional and psychological breakdown during these story meetings, and that's something that doesn't entirely ring true to me either.

In the pre-release interviews for this movie, the cast and key creative personnel were quick to preempt any criticism that since this is a movie about a famous Walt Disney production that has been produced by the Walt Disney Pictures of 2013, the truth has been cleaned up and whitewashed somewhat. I'm not convinced that they're being legit when they say that. From the get-go, Travers is a sour, unlikeable, emotionally unstable crotch, and Walt Disney is a benevolent father figure who does no wrong (apart from "kind of" smoking in one scene). By playing her disgust with the Disney company the way that the film does, it is kind of trying to have its cake and eat it too. In the end, though, Walt gives a big sales pitch that (spoiler altert!) gets her to relinquish her rights, despite her many, many objections, and it seems pretty clear that the film has a very decidedly "pro Disney" position overall.

On that subject, Saving Mr. Banks has the foul and off-putting stench of corporate synergy all over it. The Disney Studios Lot and Disneyland itself all look exactly like they do now (not altered, either practically or using VFX, to appear as they looked then, which I'm much more curious about). In the movie, the employees of the Disney lot walk around with a vacant, hypnotized devotion to the man and his work… as if the Blood of Kali from Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom was given to all new hires during their orientation period (actually the Disney lot still feels like that today at times). The movie is an extended love letter to the myth of Walt Disney and pays little attention to whomever the man himself might have been. Isn't strange that while Walt talks about how important it is to keep this promise to his daughters we never actually see them? Or his wife? Or his home life? Or his brother Roy, with whom he ran the company? Or anything about the guy at all that might make him seem a little more like a human and less like the same jolly huckster who used to host Walt Disney Presents every Sunday night?

I think there's a fascinating story or two to be made about Walt Disney's life and his company (warts and all), but I don't see the production of Mary Poppins as the epicenter of what the man was all about, and I don't think that Disney is the studio to tell a story like that. It's unfortunate that Travers had so many problems with Disney and the movie he ultimately produced, but since I imagine that few will see Saving Mr. Banks without at least some affection for Mary Poppins, it seems like she's walking into a drama with the deck seriously stacked against her.

And while we're nitpicking… doesn't the film's title basically telegraph the film's resolution roughly 100 minutes before the film gets there itself?

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