Skip to main content

Poor A. A. Milne. What a ghastly business.

Saving Mr. Banks
(2013)

The absolutely true story of how P. L. Travers came to allow Walt Disney to adapt Mary Poppins, after 20 years’ persistent begging on the latter’s part. Except, of course, it isn’t true at all. Walt has worked his magic from beyond the grave over a fairly unremarkable tale of mutual disagreement. Which doesn’t really matter if the result is a decent movie that does something interesting or though-provoking by changing the facts… Which I’m not sure it does. But Saving Mr. Banks at least a half-decent movie, and one considerably buoyed by the performances of its lead actors.


Actually, Mr. Banks is buoyed by the performances of its entire cast. It’s the script that frequently lets the side down, laying it on thick when a lighter touch is needed, repeating its message to the point of nausea. And bloating it out not so neatly to the two-hour mark when the story could have been wrapped up quite nicely in a third less time. The title itself could perhaps be seen as rubbing Walt’s nose in his ignorance of the point of Travers’ novel, and it should be credited with being much less literal than the movie itself. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith wrote Saving Mr. Banks, the former since having gone on to far greater things with the script for Fifty Shades of Grey. I can quite see their logic in padding out the screenplay and instilling emotional resonance/journey for Travers by flashing back to her turn of the century experiences in Australia with an alcoholic father. The problem is, the integration of these elements is so unrefined and schematic, and the imagery and transitions chosen by John Lee Hancock are so banal, it’s only the fine work of the actors that hold it together.


Colin Farrell is tremendous as P.L.’s father, an idealised figure whose alcoholism facilitates his encouragement of his daughter’s escape into fantasy and imagination (the line “It’s hardly Yeats, is it?” is heartbreaking; the writers presumably know Travers later met Yeats). This is very one-note, cause-and-effect storytelling as edited into the finished film. Any given event segues into PL’s reminiscence of another instance where her doting dad creates some whacky scenario while sidling a wee dram when no one but his wife notices (Ruth Wilson is great in everything, but she has little to work with here outside of disapproving looks).


The writers nearly have their cake and eat when Walt shows up at Travers’ door late in the day to philosophise over how much better it would be to have a life that isn’t dictated by the past. So that’s why Travers can’t stop thinking about daddy! The problem is, stating this doesn’t give a free pass to a nuance-free narrative. Some praise is nevertheless due to approaching and depicting alcoholism in a family film without resort to exaggeration, distortion or softening; it gets points for its child’s eye view of the glamour of a father who his high on fumes. Points deducted, though, for the magical salve that works its effect on Travers when she sees the finished Disney production. She is transformed from a rigid old maid into a weeping mess, so affected by Walt’s interpretation of the dear papa she put in her pages (this is already after she has been induced to dance to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” because of the emotions it stirs; on-the-nose doesn’t begin to describe this script or Hancock’s ignorance of subtlety).


Like I say, I can’t get up in arms over the lack of fidelity to actual events; I love quite enough movies that hold little relation to their historical counterparts for that to be a weak argument.  But I can resist the will to schmaltz that Mr. Banks teeters towards, even while providing some relief in Travers’ caustic edge. It also requires buying into the notion that the Disney movie is an unadulterated classic and, well; it’s okay (I’m not having a particular go, and it has a couple of great songs, but it was never one of my favourites). This state of affairs does make you wonder who is exerting more afterlife pull right now, though. Travers is probably pretty pissed she’s been made out as a victim of such easy homespun psychology. She’s even inspired to write again by her interaction with Disney Studios, and goes from loathing plush toys to hugging them and holding hands with a git in a Mickey costume at the film premiere. And how appropriate that someone so haughty ends up enjoying the simple pleasure of the company of a gormlessly upbeat chauffeur (Paul Giamatti, effortlessly likeable even when his character is composed of treacle-backed cardboard).


But Emma Thompson’s Travers is not her real-life counterpart. That much is abundantly clear from the not-so-loveable deep down contemporary audio recordings we hear over the end credits. Thompson makes us believe Travers might be truly affected by Let’s Go Fly A Kite, that she’s the sort of person who would actually say “You’re the only American I’ve ever liked, Ralph”. Conversely her, steely dismissiveness in the early stages is accompanied by such pithy putdowns at the gaudiness around her, it’s very easy to be on her side. Her vocal disdain for Disney’s “silly cartoons” to his face (in real life she never forgave him for putting animation in the film) is very funny. Her put down of Robert Sherman (B. J. Novak) on learning he got shot (“Hardly surprising”) is the kind of thing curt one liner at which Thompson thrives, and we appreciate Travers as something of a defender of the faith against Hollywood homilies in the form of Disney.


Lending sterling support are Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, Rachel Griffiths, Annie Rose Buckley and Kathy Baker. But it’s Hanks’ rapport with Thompson that makes this movie work. As a director, Hancock is at his best when he’s letting the actors just get on with it; it’s when he tries to get all painterly and creative (notable in the Oz scenes) that the joins start to show. Disney should be quite as irritating as Travers finds him, but you can’t not like Tom Hanks. He makes you believe in such a good ol’ boy cornball anti-Semite. And that he actually can whittle down someone with the impenetrable veneer of Travers. These scenes are the best in the movie (Farrell, great as he is, deserved a director who could treat his section as more than a counterpoint), and when it comes to Walt’s great powers of persuasion during his sermon on the power of forgiveness, we’ll buy into it for all its cloying gracelessness because its Tom who tells us so.


So, while I don’t especially appreciate the shameless manipulation, Saving Mr. Banks goes down quite agreeably. The sugar is sickly sweet, and the medicine may induce unknown side effects, but there’s a good solid spoonful of acting talent delivering the mixture. Thomas Newman deserves a good shake for inflicting perky, jaunty, building, unstoppable music throughout (we just know this will end well for all concerned!) and Hancock needs an editor, any editor. But any Disney film that acknowledges (however indirectly) the horrors redesigning and rebranding inflicted on Winnie the Pooh (irreversibly) can’t be completely in thrall to the Mouse House.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.