'Saving Mr. Banks' Review: A Shovelful of Sugar

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'Saving Mr. Banks' Review: A Shovelful of Sugar

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | December 26, 2013 | Comments ()


Walt Disney Pictures’ Saving Mr. Banks deals with the early production stages of Disney’s 1964 musical Mary Poppins, and it does so in a manner it presents as factual, or at least as close to factual as you can get in a narrative film. The character names correspond to real people, from Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) and film co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). The biographical details of Travers’s early life are in place, including her family’s move from Maryborough to Allora when she was just a little girl in Australia. Even some of the plot devices that might seem outlandish are based in fact, like the tape recorder Travers insisted be used during her production meetings with Disney’s staff to make sure she could exercise control and hold them to their word. The tape recorder, used in several scenes in the film, is brought out again during the closing credits, when the actual recordings from the 1961 script reading are played. This is the way things were then, the film seems to say.

Yet it’s not. The film’s story and conclusions stand opposed to what we actually know about the rest of Travers’ career, and it feels irresponsible to ignore them given the film’s not-so-subtle insistence that everything else on screen is up to snuff. It would be unfair to examine the way Saving Mr. Banks plays loosely with history if the film weren’t at pains to position itself as an accurate telling of the facts. But because it does, it’s hard to get past the film’s duplicity. Some of the changes are skirt the truth for cosmetic reasons: Disney, a chain smoker who would die of lung cancer in 1966 — just two years after the action on screen here — is only shown smoking once, in his office, and he stubs the butt out immediately when someone walks in, saying, “I never let anyone see me smoking. No need to encourage bad habits.” But more of these changes deal with Travers and her antagonistic relationship toward Disney and his adaptation of her books. The film has her brought to a moment of catharsis and small relief when she sees the final film, finally able to let go of some personal demons that have plagued her, though her support is still restrained. Yet in reality, she spent most of the time between her initial production meeting and the film’s release complaining about the adaptation, and the years afterward distancing herself from what Disney had done to her creation. How you feel about her reaction isn’t the point, either; it’s that the film so desperately works to create a version of history where Travers finds release and redemption in the big-screen version of her books that you start to wonder what makes them so desperate in the first place.

It’s not hard to see what: Disney is a legacy above all, and like all legacies, it’s devoted to maintaining and protecting the brand. A warts-and-all story about the making of Mary Poppins would likely be filled with happiness and heartache, joy and sorrow, triumph and regret, and most of all, complicated people trying to please themselves while not totally destroying others. Or at any rate, such a film would be possible. But Saving Mr. Banks feels too smooth around the edges, shorn of any but the blandest and most flimsily delivered story. You know, kind of like a lot of Disney movies.

The film’s also weakened by a treacly tone and dialogue that sees characters blurting out subtext. The screenplay, from Kelly Marcel (Fox’s TV series Terra Nova, the forthcoming 50 Shades of Gray) and Sue Smith (a variety of TV-movies in Australia), shifts between Travers’s often rocky childhood with her embittered development talks with Disney more than 50 years later. This is also where the film occasionally gets into trouble, at least under the hand of director John Lee Hancock. Cause and effect are hammered home, while childhood trauma (an alcoholic father, a depressed mother) is doesn’t feel like it actually happened to these characters, but is just a convenient way to set up future emotional crises. What’s more, the writers give Travers the troublesome habit of voicing a given scene’s subtext: when the adult Travers gets sucked into a flashback and then returns to the present, there are match shots and appropriate cuts to underscore that she feels she’s letting down the memory of her father and betraying his memory and lessons. Then, flustered, she exclaims “I’m letting him down again!” and scurries from the room. Instead of action revealing emotion, we have dialogue trumpeting it; and instead of emotion generating story, we get the same few notes played again and again, as if length were the same as drive.

Hancock, in a weird way, feels like the perfect fit for the material. His credits include The Blind Side, The Alamo, and The Rookie: two of them Disney films, all of them based on true stories but sharing a pliable relationship with the real world. And all three defined by a kind of genial plasticity, as if made with youth group devotionals in mind. There’s a sense in Saving Mr. Banks not only that not much is being risked, but that it would be impossible for things to get that complicated. After all, it’s not as if Mary Poppins didn’t get made. Hancock’s attempts to inject suspense into the debate between Travers and Disney over whether she’ll sign away the rights fall flat, so we’re left with alternating scenes of a repressed child and tormented woman, shuffling along until she gives in.

When the film works at all, it does so in fits, and almost entirely based on the persuasive powers of Thompson and Hanks. These are two of their generation’s strongest and most dependable performers, and they’re occasionally able, through brute will, to transform the film around them into something that looks and acts a lot like a real movie. They hem and haw about the direction the adaptation will take, and they manage to do a lot with smart reactions: When Thompson says she doesn’t want Mary Poppins to be one of those “silly cartoons,” Hanks bristles just enough to show he’s been really wounded that someone would dismiss the work he’d done to build his empire.

Yet it’s not enough to save the film from being a kind of warped, superficial ode to itself, mirroring the struggle for authenticity and emotion played out by the characters. Maybe that was inevitable, though. Can you blame Disney (the company) for wanting to save Disney (the man)? This isn’t a behind-the-scenes story, or something that wants to capture a myth in the making. It’s a version of that story, suffering from nagging elisions and curious changes of heart. In the late 1980s, Disney shot down a planned biopic that would’ve depicted Walt as a complicated, driven individual, as capable of grace as terror, since it didn’t track with the image they needed of a dreamer who lived larger than life. It’s a perfect bit serendipity that Saving Mr. Banks was released the same year as Escape From Tomorrow, a guerilla-style film shot on location at Disney theme parks that uses the media empire as an emblem of artifice and emptiness in a consumer-driven society. Watching Saving Mr. Banks, you get the feeling that was what Travers was railing against in the first place. Here, though, her howls fall on deaf mouse ears.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Saw it and I'd recommend as the ideal film for seeing with extended family over the holidays. Treacly, non-offensive, nostalgic, non-offensively funny... it'd be perfect for killing couple hours with aunts, uncles, and sullen teens.

    Emma Thompson wins it for everything of course, but I was surprised by how charming Collin Farrell was.

  • Aaron Schulz

    Thats a shame, i love tom hanks and i find walt disney to be fascinating. i feel like no one exists like him now that has these insane visions and just spends all the money to make it happen.

  • Tracer Bullet

    But did they get into the antisemitism? I don't want a Disney who isn't a Nazi sympathizer.

  • Wigamer

    I'm going to need Tom Hanks to make a movie I won't hate. Soon.

  • Whistler

    Everyone looks at me funny when I say I love The Ladykillers remake. It's possibly the only Tom Hanks movie I don't want to kick in the stomach. This new one looked promising on the trailers, sigh.

  • BiblioGlow

    I think if they made a more accurate movie it would be P.L. Travers who came off worse, more than Disney. She was a little...unique. And by unique I mean slightly crazy. And 'very, very difficult', according to Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman in the movie) who said "she hated everything". She also hated the finished movie.

    Fun Fact: At 40, she adopted a boy. Nice right? Well, she adopted him but not his twin, because of her astrologer's advice. And then didn't tell him either that he had siblings OR that he was adopted, until one day when he was 17 his twin showed up on his doorstep. Now that's a story I would want to see.

  • Whistler

    Astrologer's advice. Oy vey!
    I always found it quite strange that she chose a kid who actually still had his grandparents, his grandfather being Yeats' biographer, and not many other "orphaned" (for further explanation, Philomena) children from Ireland. It was probably under her astrologer's advice as well.

  • BWeaves

    Yeah, I read up about her, and she was weird. The twin adoption story was just, just, I have no words.

  • Jelinas

    This movie is the cinematic equivalent of a blood diamond.

    You know it's shady, and that much was probably compromised to bring it to you, but it's so pretty and shiny with that ridiculously lovable cast and the promise of nostalgic songs from your (well, MY, at least) childhood. You try to turn a blind eye to the sordid truth, and the film is just magical enough to get you to smile as you watch, but not enough to completely erase the guilt of having enjoyed what you know is a fairytale fabrication of the ugly truth.

    I know it's just a movie, but it really bothers me that most people will probably accept the Disney version of the truth without bothering to find out what really happened. They may actually get away with rewriting history on this one. UGH.

  • Dave Dorris

    Are you really sure you don't want to change your mind comparing a movie where everyone got paid fairly to the mining of gems using essentially slave labor to finance war? Maybe there's a better metaphor.

  • rio

    Oh my god i feel so vindicated (which since I'm awful and self centered, is my favorite feeling, and it has been since I was a kid, as a child I loved the most movies where a character was vindicated at some point, whatever I digress). I read the script for this when I was interning in a production company and when we had the monday morning meaning everybody loved this script, for me it was so "meh", they ended up not producing it for other reasons but i always felt like a movie about a woman who has no intention to actually deal with her demons and who avoids it even when she's forced to only because someone wants to make money out of her book. I was kinda "what's the point of this?" And I just realize that my comments are always super long and super unnecessary and I'm gonna go jump from a really tall building now.

  • SaBrinaStillHatesDisqus

    Tell us about your childhood relationship with your father.

  • BWeaves

    Don't you dare jump for a tall building. I liked your comment and it was not too long.

  • RocksEaglesHats

    Not so much a review of the film as a categorical objection based on historical factors.

    Not unwarranted by any means, and good to know. But it might be nice to get a better impression of the film based on its own merits rather than as mainly informed by Disney resentment and historical correctionalism.

  • Can you go into that a little more?

    What questions are you looking for in the review? You want the film to be dealt with only as a film, as if the actual people didn't exist, but instead it's a narrative about any successful producer courting any artist? (That sounds VERY much like I'm being rhetorically combative; that's not my endgame. It has never occurred to me to look at a film like this, that is attempting to tell an historical story, as just a film. If it fails at history, it never would occur to me to say, "But the acting was terrific." But maybe that's actually a way one should look at these kinds of film? Anyway, that's why I'm asking.)

  • "If it fails at history, it never would occur to me to say, 'But the acting was terrific.'"

    Funny, that's exactly what I said about Gangs of New York, specifically regarding Daniel Day Lewis.

  • Kane Leal

    Nice use of "elision".

  • Mrs. Julien

    I LOVE learning a new word.

  • BWeaves

    I guess this goes on my Netflix list, and not on the must see in theater list.

  • Melissa

    This is the only negative review I've even heard of but this is the one you believe. I saw it in a preview audience and it's fantastic. Do yourself a favor and ignore this reviewers haughty patronizing review.

  • BWeaves

    No, this is NOT the only negative review I've had on this movie. My local newspaper said it was meh. My parents went to see it and my mother thought it was so-so and my dad fell asleep halfway through. Pajiba was the last review I read on this movie. A movie has to get a MUST SEE THIS IN THE THEATER review from all the people I trust before I shell out money to sit with a bunch of strangers. I appreciate your positive review. I still want to see it, but I'll see it when it comes out on DVD vs. running out and seeing it in a theatre.

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