Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Image via The Guardian

Hollywood loves nothing more than itself. So I guess it’s fitting that a movie about Walt Disney was made by Walt Disney Pictures. Walt Disney made a movie about Walt Disney whether you like it or not.

That sets the tone for “Saving Mr. Banks,” a sometimes dark but mostly sugarcoated view of a Hollywood story that didn’t necessarily need to be told, but here it is anyway.

In actuality, “Saving Mr. Banks” is not even that much about Walt Disney, even if it was one of the film’s major selling points. It is really about P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the eccentric author of “Mary Poppins.” Mrs. Travers (as she would want you to call her) is the farthest thing from a sellout, but she is strapped for cash. Disney, who is played here by a mustached Tom Hanks, wants to buy the rights to “Mary Poppins” from her for a film, but Travers won’t do it until she can approve of Disney’s vision. So he sends her from London to Hollywood to work on the script.

Behind-the-scenes looks at Hollywood can be interesting. The process of getting a movie made is such a painstaking process that it usually takes an insane person to get a really good one made. “Saving Mr. Banks” is about pre-pre-production on “Mary Poppins,” before anyone even knew if it was actually going to get made. Therefore, “Saving Mr. Banks” is less about taking huge creative risks and more about the very early creative process of trying to come up with ideas. However, the film never really captures the frustration of trying to get an idea to stick. Rather, it is about a really frustrating person who will shoot down every idea she can.
“Saving Mr. Banks” takes place in 1961, and is intercut with flashbacks to Travers’ childhood. The flashbacks ultimately turn what could have been a fun, breezy look at Old Hollywood into a period piece that takes itself too seriously. The flashbacks serve to reveal Travers’ relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), a man who gave her the cynical outlook on life that was a crucial part of her creative growth. While this is a necessary element of the film, it also feels like it could have been accomplished in just a few simple lines of exposition.

Meanwhile, the film tries way too hard to seamlessly transition into these blasts from the past. Little mind triggers take Travers out of the present and into the haunted events of her Australian childhood. The most ridiculous of these comes from a bowl of pears. From there, the biggest mystery of the film is this: what did pears ever do to her? Did a pear kill her father? Or have an affair with her mother? It was these questions that helped me stay awake through the film’s dullest scenes. I would have preferred that these flashbacks were shoved into the film in a sincerely messy way as opposed to with phony subtlety.

While “Saving Mr. Banks” lets the characters live, it never lets them move around, breath, and truly explore the space. Hanks, who gave one of the best performances of his career in “Captain Phillips” in the fall, seemingly phones it in here. Or at least his potential does not seem to be fully realized. Meanwhile, Thompson gives a standout performance as Travers. At first, her uptight quirks are pretty grating but as the film moves along, they become surprisingly endearing. However, there is a sense of humor that makes up her personality that one can only see from an actual recording of one of their writing sessions (Travers liked to record everything), which is played during the closing credits. Unfortunately, this seemingly funny British sensibility doesn’t come through as much as it should in her performance.

While bias usually only applies to journalism, it can be a major problem for entertainment as well. “Saving Mr. Banks” isn’t necessarily a blatant advertisement for Disney. However, it is definitely a piece of pro-Disney propaganda. While movies don’t need to portray the past accurately in order to be good, they should at least try to come close. Instead, “Saving Mr. Banks” portrays Walt Disney as a big kid with boundless imagination. While I am sure that Disney was like that, he also must have been a pretty ruthless businessman, given the scope of the empire that he created. Instead, we are expected to be sympathetic for him because he had a rough childhood. That tidbit, like most of what the film reveals, isn’t as big of a revelation as it thinks it is.

At one point, Disney gives a cheesy, self-congratulatory speech that is perhaps perfect for this film. We give tons of awards and money to people who make things up, so why do we all need to hear a speech about how important creative people are?

I might have a little bias here myself, as I have actually never seen “Mary Poppins.” I am not sure if this would have changed my opinion on the film or not. I doubt it, because in a weird way, the ending of “Saving Mr. Banks” was emotionally satisfying, even though it fell flat at the same time. Watching the whole film is like watching a good movie duke it out with a bad movie, as if it is trying to give itself an exorcism.

“Saving Mr. Banks” never strives to break new ground. It is a good remedy for anybody looking for a feel good holiday flick. It is more “Finding Neverland” than “Sunset Boulevard.” Disney’s big final speech fell a little short: he should have mentioned that telling a story involves a bit more honesty and sincerity than “Saving Mr. Banks” has to offer.

Brain Farts From The Edge

·      Having just seen “Inside Llewyn Davis,” every other portrayal of an artist going through a creative struggle just seems trite. And on that note, it is hard to say that Llewyn is a jerk (as many have) after seeing some of things that Mrs. Travers does.

·      I am still not sure if Mr. Disney was actually an anti-Semite, but I was half expecting him to yell “bring me your finest writer Jew writer!” at several points.

·      Speaking of which, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman were completely under-utilized. I could have watched an entire movie about them trying to write a musical.

·      PEARS

·      Walt Disney’s teddy bear attitude reminded me a lot of Hank Hooper from “30 Rock.”

·      PEARS

·      I should probably mention Travers’ friendship with her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). This is probably the most weirdly used cliché in the entire film. I am not fully convinced as to how this one man suddenly made her like America more. Their friendship was way too predictable to be plausible.

·      I would love to see a separate Disney biopic made by a different studio that explores what could possibly drive somebody to have such a grand creative vision. The guy was a child, a businessman, and a futurist, all rolled into one.

·      In the film, Disney says that he likes to see the world through a child’s eyes. This film feels like a child’s perception of Walt Disney. That is not a good thing.

·      Everything in her present life echoes her past. Crazy, right?!

  • Elise Meyer

    Wow, Ian, we couldn’t have more divergent opinions on your last 2 reviews (and the last 2 films I’ve seen). I LOVED Saving Mr. Banks, and hated hated hated the interminable and obnoxious “Wolf”. I am so sorry that you never saw Mary Poppins when you were young and could (would) have been charmed by it, but that ship has sailed, and there is no way you would enjoy any part of it today (or would almost anyone who didn’t see it in the 60s, when the effects would have seemed less cheesy, the pace less glacial, the characters less unfamiliar, the culture less stiltedly mannered). But for me, a huge fan of the Mary Poppins books as well as the film, to see the parallels between the writer’s life and her art, and her attempt to maintain artistic control over her book- so intensely personal and traumatic; transferred to a medium so removed from her introspective personality was absolutely fascinating. For Travers, as the film depicts, Mary Poppins was her coping mechanism, her unique way to re-direct and come to terms with her horrible childhood. I loved picking up on the biographical minutiae hidden in her book. I loved the way Disney/Hanks charmed, guided and collaborated with her so that in the end, he helped heal-actually resolve– her childhood wounds, by actually re-framing the father figure as the “child” that needed “the nanny”. On the other hand, while I applaud DeCaprio’s over-the-top performance, the movie was repellent in every way, and especially indulgent in the ridiculously long running time and totally unnecessarily repetitive attenuation of disgusting excess and debauchery. (And, anyway, nobody in the history of drugs ever downed that many quaaludes at once! )