Movies Without Pity

Saving Mr. Banks: Two For One

by admin December 13, 2013 1:27 pm
Saving Mr. Banks: Two For One

Caveat emptor, Mary Poppins devotees. Although the trailers for Saving Mr. Banks make this PG-rated period biopic look like a fun, family-friendly behind-the-scenes tour of the making of the classic Disney musical, that material only accounts for about half of the finished product. There's another film wrapped into the narrative, one that's darker, more depressing and, to be perfectly honest, not especially good -- especially for very young kids who just want to know when those dancing cartoon penguins are going to show up.

I can see why Disney wants to downplay that material in favor of the more Poppins-centric storyline, which features Emma Thompson stalking about the frame as Mary's creator P.L. Travers insulting all the Disney numbskulls trying to transfer her book from the page to the screen, from the composing team of Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) to ol' Walt himself (played by Tom Hanks, who doesn't look or sound much like the iconic animator, but effectively adopts his avuncular television presence .) It's a perfect role for the actress, who has always excelled at playing smart, brittle and caustically funny women. This also happens to be the material that seems closest to the heart of screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, who dramatize what was by most accounts a very long and difficult production process with the right mixture of humor and heart.

Having specifically created Mary Poppins to be the antithesis of most of the goody-goody characters populating children's literature, Travers is horrified by the thought of seeing her fantastical nanny turned into a rosy-cheeked Disney heroine. It's that fear that has led her to reject Walt's repeated entreaties to purchase the big-screen rights to her 1934 novel; but with money drying up and no new book forthcoming, she reluctantly agrees to fly to Los Angeles to preview what their take on Mary would be, should she agree to sign over the license. As you might expect, she doesn't much care for what the boys in Disney's back room have come up with. She hates the proposed character designs, she hates the casting of Dick Van Dyke as chimney sweep Bert, she hates the various songs Sherman & Sherman have penned and, above all, she hates the idea of her all-too-human Mary being inserted into one of Disney's cartoons. Working in part from actual recordings that exist of the real Travers going back-and-forth with the movie's creative team, Marcel and Smith pen a humorous, insightful account of the messiness that's often part of the creative process, particularly when there are lots of voices competing to be heard. The film's high point comes when, after countless squabbles, Travers and her foes finally agree on something: the awesomeness of the movie's closing song, "Let's Go Fly a Kite." Forgetting herself for a moment, the author joins in the singing and dancing and the scene soars on the joy that accompanies a creative breakthrough.

Unfortunately, Saving Mr. Banks is then immediately dragged back down to Earth by its less-heralded storyline, one that regularly transports us back to Travers's youth when she followed her family -- headed up by her effortlessly charming, but frequently drunk father (Colin Farrell) -- around Australia, eventually settling down in a farmhouse outside a small town in the Outback. At first, their new home seems ideal, with Dad starting a new job at a bank and Mom (Ruth Wilson) seeming hopeful again. But then a familiar pattern starts to repeat itself (Dad comes home from work early and hides flasks around the house, while Mom's smile grows so tight, it threatens to crack) and the family threatens to fall apart. Then, at a crucial moment, in swoops a stern, but good-hearted governess (Rachel Griffiths) clad in black garb who isn't powerful enough to put everything right, but leaves an impact on the budding author just the same.

At least, that's what I'm assuming the film intends for us to take away from those scenes. For such a seemingly crucial character, Griffiths has surprisingly little screen time in the flashback sequences, which instead revolve around the many different ways that Farrell repeatedly lets down his young daughter. The actor is actually quite good in the role -- effectively portraying this man's desire to be a good husband and father, as well as his susceptibility to the various temptations that lure him away from that path -- but it's an increasingly repetitious storyline that raises darker, more serious issues than the film is prepared to deal with. (I do think that older kids will find value in talking through some of this mature material -- which includes addiction, illness and a suicide attempt -- with their own parents, but it's going to be grim and upsetting for most members of the under-10 set, i.e. the prime Mary Poppins demographic.) As much as the script strains to connect Travers' past with her present, Saving Mr. Banks instead resembles two very different movies shoved together, a feeling enhanced by director's John Lee Hancock's inelegant cross-cutting between the two eras. One movie is frequently delightful; the other is an increasingly tedious spoonful of sour.

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