"Get on the horse, Pamela!"
With the fiftieth anniversary of Disney's Mary Poppins right around the corner, the time seemed right for a film about its creation and the notorious clash between the book's author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and the king of twentieth century children's entertainment Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Saving Mr. Banks is a Walt Disney Studios production (I doubt any other studio would allow a film to be made about their founder), so that raised a few eyebrows as to whether or not this would be a slanted look at the film's creation. Could the film stand on its own two feet, independent of any studio bias, or would it present the stranger than fiction tale without any predisposition? Read on to find out...
The year 1961 finds author Pamela Travers at the end of her rope following twenty years of hounding from Walt Disney to sign over the rights to her most cherished creation, Mary Poppins, for him to turn into a feature film. Mrs. Travers, facing dire straits financially, relents and agrees to fly to Hollywood and meet with Mr. Disney and his creative team, as he has granted her the unprecedented courtesy of script approval. Upon arriving in California, Mrs. Travers finds herself bombarded with the typical Disney warmheartedness and familiarity that she resents, coming from such a formal British society.
She begins to clash immediately with Disney and his team on virtually every detail of the film, wanting there to be no musical numbers, no animation, and even vetoing the use of the color red anywhere in the film. As Disney tries to crack the mystery surrounding Travers' over protection of her creation, the audience is treated to a parallel linear narrative that details her upbringing as a child in Australia with a father (Colin Farrell) who was given to equal parts whimsy and alcohol.
Since the audience knows that the film eventually got made, there's no suspense in whether or not she'll sign the rights over to Disney to make his film, so the only ace the film has up its sleeve is the how of it all, which proves to be the film's biggest liability. Telling the flashbacks to Travers' childhood in a straight linear fashion actually makes the film something of a bore as it guards its secrets as if it were protecting the formula to Coca-Cola. The hints that are dropped throughout the film's first ninety minutes turn things into something of a dull pastiche as there's no real cat to let out of the bag. It all just sort of boils down to a handful of emotional connections that the author has to her childhood rather than a series of incidents that lit her creative fuse. It's something of a bait and switch that really doesn't work the way they must have intended.
And the way they portray Travers is an absolute hatchet job. She is shown as a humorless old biddy that lives to shit all over everyone's ideas and is given next to no motivation for her prickly behavior. She was protective of her creation for a reason and the film's attempt to parallel her attachment to Poppins with Disney's similar attachment to Mickey Mouse rings a bit false. It's a case of history being written by the winners, and although the dialogue is quite snappy and incredibly well observed at times, the overall story that it's in service of is a letdown because it shows a woman being press-ganged by a bunch of well-intentioned, good natured folks who just want to make sure that everyone has a good time. It's pure Disney propaganda.
Thank goodness for Emma Thompson, though, as her characterization of this woman is an absolute marvel. She manages to be a delight in spite of the script's best efforts to ensure she comes off as the de facto villain. She shines through the material and proves that she can always make the absolute best out of anything she's given. Hanks is great as well, as you would expect from Tom Hanks, giving the perfect characterization for this film which is to make sure he seems jovial and empathetic without ever coming across as pushy. The rest of the supporting cast does solid work as well, with Paul Giamatti doing stand-out work once again as Travers' driver, and Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman & BJ Novak also doing good work as the film's music and writing team.
Director John Lee Hancock's last film was the maudlin and absurdly overrated The Blind Side, which makes him the perfect choice for a script like this. He's basically never met a cliche he couldn't use and beat into the ground until it becomes utterly meaningless. It's one of the most overwrought directing jobs you're likely to see, and coupled with the film's score by the usually reliable Thomas Newman, it does everything in its power to ensure that you experience the exact emotions they want you to experience at the exact moment they want you to experience them. I truly, truly hate to do this, but they force everything down with several dozen spoonfuls of sugar.
Saving Mr. Banks isn't a total wash. It's anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Thompson who is ably aided by a stellar supporting cast, but it's almost all for naught as the film itself wants to be a homogenized, easily digestible sap-fest that is calculated to toy with your emotions. It's hard to dismiss it outright since it is lovingly made and does all that it can to please its audience, so it's a bit like kicking a puppy dog, but it feels more like a puppy dog bred in a laboratory to meet your every need. It's cute and distracting, but it's most assuredly the work of craftsman who want to ensure that it serves a very definite function. It's the very definition of hollow.
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]