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Entries in Saving Mr. Banks [2013] (1)

Saturday
Dec142013

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrowland

Growing up, my entertainment diet consisted mostly of Star Wars, The Goonies, and Transformers cartoons. I was a whiz-bang kid, and had little time for classic Disney films--which I considered ten-minute fables stretched to feature length by a handful of quaint songs. My opinion didn't change later on, and was, in fact, buoyed by a complete distrust of Disney as a sinister corporation. The brand sold dreams through movies about empowerment and individuality, but used them merely as vehicles to sell theme-park tickets and mass-produce any useless product with a surface large enough to support a cartoon face and copyright symbol.

That's a long-winded way of confessing two things: A) I've never seen Mary Poppins all the way through, and B) I was a closed-minded idiot until my mid-thirties.*

Ironically, these two factors made me the perfect audience member for John Lee Hancock's wonderful new film, Saving Mr. Banks. Emma Thompson stars as P.L. Travers, the uptight creator of the Mary Poppins book series. The author's career has hit the skids, and she either needs a hit or some serious money in order to save her house in England. Through much coaxing by her agent (Ronan Vibert), she agrees to finally sign over the film adaptation rights to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who has pursued her off and on for twenty years.

Travers considers herself a serious author and, on landing in California, quickly establishes her lack of patience for Disney's perpetual optimism and slickly branded cartoon fantasies. The film cuts between her upbringing in the Irish countryside, where her parents struggled with unemployment and alcoholism. Her father, Travers Goff (Colin Ferrell), spent much of his time creating lively, elaborate worlds of imagination for his three daughters, while Margaret Goff (Ruth Wilson) stood nervously to the side, contemplating her husband's hidden bottles and bloody cough. As Saving Mr. Banks progresses, we see how a free-spirited princess of the countryside grew into a dour, reality-based adult--all the while wishing upon a star that her positive, new surroundings will re-ignite the spark of her innocence.

While much of the film's publicity has centered on Hanks' role, this is not really a movie about Disney. Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith don't treat him as a character so much as an icon. It make sense, I suppose, that the company bearing his name would paint ol' Walt in as flattering a light as possible--but it's a tad hard to believe that Travers (insufferable though she may be) is the first person to truly challenge and exasperate a man who scraped his way to the top in Hollywood.

The fact that his all plays out in the fantasy portion of Saving Mr. Banks makes it kind of acceptable. By "fantasy", I mean "reality" in the context of life at the Walt Disney Studios. Everyone is happy there, from Disney's receptionist (Melanie Paxson) to the trio of writers (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, and Bradley Whitford) hired to turn the book into a musical--against the author's wishes. Travers exasperates everyone with her humorlessness, prudish incredulity, and endless demands. The only person to not be tried by her sourness is a town-car driver named Ralph (Paul Giamatti). At first, his golly-gee optimism appears to be more of the same Stepford-like Disney personnel polish, but we soon learn he has reasons based in real-world adversity to find the good in everyone and everything.

You won't need to strain too hard to figure out how Saving Mr. Banks ends. Spoiler Alert: Mary Poppins got made, Travers got paid, and millions of people around the globe discovered the original Super Nanny. What's surprising about the film is how dark it is in places. That's not to say it has the same tonal struggles as a movie like Philomena, but if you go in expecting a light, unchallenging comedy with Oscar-bait turns by big-name stars, you may be in for an unwelcome surprise. Saving Mr. Banks is the opposite of a fluffy holiday romp.

It is also excellent, and touches on some unexpected themes, such as the complicated intersection between art and commerce. There may not be a greater example this year of gaudy wealth and commercialism than the scene where Travers checks into her fancy hotel, only to find it has been packed to the floorboards with stuffed animals, treats, and as much Disney merchandise as existed at the time. But it was the sale of these tchotchkes and movie tickets that allowed Disney to support his brain trust of innovative filmmakers and theme-park designers. It's hard to know how much of the real Disney lay in Hanks' mesmerizing (if ultimately one-dimensional) performance, but the actor makes us believe that the man behind it all genuinely wanted to create dreams for a living--dreams that had to be funded, somehow.

It's a shame the Disney corporation was behind Saving Mr. Banks. The fact that the Mouse House threw millions of dollars and top talent at a hyper-fantastic pseudo-biography of its founding father might turn some people off to its charms as a legitimate film. Of course, clearances would've been a nightmare, I'm sure--and I don't necessarily want to see a "Dark Side of Disney" movie, where Hanks-as-Walt swears, chain-smokes, and yells politically incorrect things at lackies. But inherent in John Lee Hancock's movie is a feeling that the darker material has been scientifically measured, trimmed, and polished; that the comedy and the whimsy have been focus tested for maximum enjoyment. It's like McDonalds announcing their own crack team of market researchers have discovered that Big Macs are, undisputably, the best hamburgers ever made.

Ignoring all that inside-baseball crap, Saving Mr. Banks is a fine film--a piece of art and a consummable good that made me appreciate the struggle to adapt Mary Poppins for the big screen. This appreciation is so profound, in fact, that I'm compelled to give Mary Poppins another shot. Fortunately, a newly restored, fiftieth-anniversary blu-ray has just been released. Filled with hours of extras and exclusive content, this combo-pack includes a DVD and digital copy of the film, which I can watch anywhere, at my convenience. Best yet, it's a steal at $39.99!

I love you, Walt Disney!

*In truth, the word "was" is a ego cradle. As anyone who's read this site (or spoken to me for five minutes) can attest, my struggle to maintain perspective is uphill and on-going.