Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

Directed by John Lee Hancock. 
2013. Rated PG, 125 minutes. 
Emma Thompson 
Tom Hanks 
Paul Giamatti 
Colin Farrell 
B.J. Novak 
Jason Schwartzman 
Ruth Wilson 
Annie Rose Buckley 
Melanie Paxson 
Bradley Whitford

Even if you've never seen Mary Poppins, chances are you're familiar with the character. Based on a children's novel and released in 1964, it quickly became an iconic piece of cinema, raking in all sorts of money at the box office and an armful of Oscars for good measure. Our plot revolves around the struggles of the great Walt Disney (Hanks) to get the book's author P.L. Travers (Thompson) to let him bring it to the big screen. The problem is she's so attached to her creation she can't bear to see anyone embellish it any way and is willing to fight tooth and nail about it. We get to see how Disney and his team of merry makers charmed her enough to get her to loosen the reins. This is no small feat considering she starts adamantly against him making it one of his "silly cartoons" and absolutely does not want it to be a musical. A power struggle with a seismic shift ensues.

The film benefits from a wonderful performance by Emma Thompson in the lead role. She is a perfect blend of standoffish, defensive, and rude. At the same time, we know that she is fiercely protecting something she loves. We respect that immensely even if we disagree with her methods. Thompson commands the screen whenever she is on it which is most of the time. Her strong presence pulls us in. She makes us understand that she feels wronged by Disney and his people at every turn. We're also glad when she begins coming around.

From the other side of things, we feel the frustration of the people who are trying to give cinematic life to Travers' book. Despite what you've heard, Disney is not really key to conveying this life. He's just the muscle brought in when the rest of his team is at their wits end. They spend much more time with her, and with us. It's their pain we feel. Mostly, this is thanks to a pair of wonderful turns. One is B.J. Novak, the other by Jason Schwartzman. They play the two songwriters who compose the music for the movie. Their battles with her take on an epic quality that serves the movie well. As for Hanks as Disney, he gets two scenes where he goes for the gusto, but otherwise isn't given a whole lot to do. To his credit, he makes it work when he's called upon.

Where Saving Mr. Banks lacks most is in the tension department. Given that we all know Mary Poppins got made, the movie can't generate any whatsoever. P.L. Travers can rant, rave, stomp, and shout all she wants to, we're never going to think she's actually going to stop the production. It's like watching a sporting event when you already know the final score. Sure, seeing how it got that way can be fun, but it never generates the same excitement as not knowing how it ends. Even with lots of movies that we can predict the ending, that shred of doubt that says we might be wrong can keep us interested. This movie never affords us that.

The movie does do a decent job combating this problem by using flashbacks to Travers' life as a child. It's a history most viewers aren't familiar with. We don't know how her relationship with her dad (Farrell) plays out. We hope it works out for the best. Unfortunately, this is still only a subplot. The overriding focus is on whether or not a movie will be made, a question to which we already know the answer. That said, I have to give Colin Farrell credit, for turning in some very nice work as the author's dad. It is him and his character that provide the movie's most emotional moments.

As the movie comes to a close, we're left with the feeling we watched a nice movie that is very well made. We really enjoy the performances by Emma Thompson and Colin Farrell, as well as those of actors with smaller roles. This includes Tom Hanks, disarmingly charming when he needs to be. However, its iconic subject matter serves as an anchor. The movie can never pull it along enough to build up any serious momentum. It just moseys along, pluckily doing things we can appreciate, but aren't necessarily thrilled by. I hate to say it, but we have an enjoyable and pleasant watch that is bound to be forgotten.


  1. I was very impressed by Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti and Colin Farrell (in that order). I didn't know anything about Travers but by the end I was so moved by it. I didn't really believe Hanks in the role of Disney tho, but overall it was enjoyable even if it's not as indelible as it wants to be.

    1. The acting was great. The fact that literally everyone in the world knows the ending in advance is a huge issue that it just can't overcome.

  2. It's interesting that you mention the flashbacks, which weren't as interesting for me. There was nothing particularly wrong with them, but I found the scenes at the Disney studios and Disneyland to be the most interesting parts. This is probably because I'm interested in the history of the company and theme parks. I wanted more about the creation of Mary Poppins and less about the reasons for it. Still, I enjoyed the movie on the whole, especially Hanks, Thompson, and a lot of the others.

    1. The scenes at Disney were not bad. They just failed to hold my interest for the reasons I gave above. I also didn't get much of Disney history, certainly not enough to make me approach it from that angle.

  3. The film was a bit too sentimental for me, but the performances were indeed great, I especially loved Farrel - shocking how in a Disney movie they did something so rare and didn't show an alcoholic as a monster but as a complex guy who was still able to be a loving father.

    1. I agree with everything you just said. It's not bad and does some great things, just too schmaltzy.