Saving Mr. Banks
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.