Monday, December 30, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks movie review.

Who doesn’t love Mary Poppins? You’d have a difficult task tracking someone down who doesn’t like this movie, and for good reason. It’s an iconic, imaginative, and lovely film with great depth to it. But did you know this classic almost never got made?

This is the topic of the latest Disney released live action feature, Saving Mr. Banks, a film inspired by the infamous butting of heads between the book’s author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney (Ya’ll know who he is),  over how the film ought to be brought to the screen.

Truth be told, the main reason I got so excited about this movie is because I’ve always wanted to see a Disney biopic, a character study that, while it would show him as the revolutionary he was, would also delve into his numerous vices. So, you could probably imagine my disappointment when I found out that this story would be more focused on Travers. However, I was still excited for it, and having finally seen it, I have a lot to say.

The year is 1961, and author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is flying to Los Angeles to meet with the filmmakers at Walt Disney Pictures, who are eager to adapt her stories to the big screen, especially Walt himself (Tom Hanks), wanting to live up to a promise he made to his daughter many years ago. However, during the affair, Travers is not so subtly displeased over many of the decisions the team makes, fearing what the Disney name stands for, and that these characters that are so dear to her will be used for the worse.

First of all, I do have a certain love/hate dilemma over some of the facts present in the film. I know as well as anyone the history between Travers and Disney, and while I do have a respect for the facts that they do present correctly (albeit with some sugar coating), there are some very glaring issues I could not overlook. In the film, Travers meets Disney when she arrives to the studio. In actuality, Disney was not present at that time, not wanting to deal with Travers, and leaving that duty to the songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (played in the film by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). By the time the whole ordeal was finished, Disney responded to Travers asking to remove the animated segments with “Pamela, the ship has sailed.”, and while she comes to be won over by the film in the end (to a certain degree), the real Travers was far less fond of it. Honestly, I’m not against sentimentality in films (in fact, a lot of times, I’d much rather have that over something insultingly cynical), but even I have my limits when it comes to distorting facts. I know this is a movie produced by Walt Disney Pictures we’re talking about, but come on!

Now, if that in any way indicated that I don’t like this movie, let me just say that I actually do. True, I don’t really enjoy this movie as a history lesson, but as sort of a “What if?” type of film, I don’t mind it too much. A lot of my enjoyment comes from the creative process in the film. It certainly does convey very well how stubborn Travers was, especially when she’s deliberately testing the patience of everyone involved, but they also do a good job of humanizing her as well, and explaining why the stories mean so much to her.

The film uses a lot of flashbacks (that transition very awkwardly, I must note) to show how her living conditions shaped her to where she is now. All of this is due to growing up knowing her father (Colin Farrell), a loving and imaginative man unfortunately undercut by his growing illness and alcoholism. As explained in the film, it’s the father – not the children – that Mary Poppins comes to save in the stories, and they serve as a way to give her father the happy ending that he deserved, but not shy away from the hard facts that children will eventually have to learn. The whole experience of it does feel quite touching.

Director John Lee Hancock may pile on the sweetness a little too thick at times, but still manages to craft some visually pleasing sweetness. I particularly loved the production design and the costumes provided for the film, which excellently immerse the viewer into the time and place of the events, and the score by Thomas Newman is quite wonderful stuff, mixing in poignant uses of the Sherman Brothers’ legendary music from Mary Poppins.

What really grabs me about Saving Mr. Banks is the cast. These actors are all exquisite to the tiniest detail. Of the supporting players, Colin Farrell (while a touch melodramatic) is very tender playing a man whose behavior and fantastical imagination puts him at odds with the challenges of the real world, Paul Giamatti  is humorous and heartfelt as Travers’ personal driver Ralph, and Schwartzman and Novak definitely nail their interpretations of the Sherman Brothers. Even smaller performances from Ruth Wilson and Rachel Griffiths make an impact.

The two leads are the standouts of the film. Emma Thompson capably and perfectly hits on the head the personality and behavior of Travers. She gets the stubbornness absolutely right, which can be humorous at times, especially when she seems to be correcting the filmmakers like disobedient children, but she also manages to tap into the touching side of the character, able to reveal the pain within her so excellently, with or without any words at all. Tom Hanks, despite not being an exact match for Disney’s looks, is still incredible here. It’s not the full on character study I wanted, but Hanks does manage to get across some surprising depth to get at the core of the man behind the legend. He does feel very warm and inviting, even having the enthusiasm and spirit of a wondrous child, but he can also be very opportunistic to get what he wants, and one of his scenes near the end (one recalling his father) put his outlook into fascinating perspective.

Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious? Not quite, and I can understand if someone doesn’t like this movie for the over-sweetness, but this is a spoonful of sugar I don’t mind that much. Saving Mr. Banks, despite whatever obvious issues it may have, still remains a likable, heartfelt, and beautifully made movie. Certainly not one of the year’s best, but good nonetheless.

Now, I hope they’ll finally make the Disney biopic I want to see in the future. Something in the vein of Lincoln, maybe? Make it happen, Hollywood!

**** / *****

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