The Watchers

The Watchers

Friday, 13 December 2013

Review: Saving Mr. Banks (UK Cert PG)

The Disney multi-billion pound empire; few people sit on the fence when it comes to Uncle Walt. You either love him, and see Disney as having created some of the finest films of the medium, or you put Disney in the same category as McDonald’s, the Disney brand is, first-and-foremost, out to make money and everything else comes (a miles behind) second. With John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr Banks, Disney has done something surprisingly brave: they have put their business, their legacy, under the microscope.

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of Mary Poppins, has turned down Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) offers to make a film of her beloved children’s book for twenty years. She sees Disney as the “King Midas of Hollywood,” his theme park nothing more than a “moneymaking machine.” Having made a promise to his daughters, Disney is determined to try one last time to persuade the bad-tempered writer to sign over the rights to her book.

Saving Mr Banks could have been a sickly-sweet re-telling of the artistic differences between Travers and Disney, but far from it. Much of this is down to the performances, both Thompson and Hanks being, once again, impossible to find fault with.

If another actress were to play the role of Travers, audiences may have felt detached towards the film’s heroine. Putting down anyone and everyone she comes across, in the wrong hands Travers could have been a cheerless English stereotype. Every minute that Emma Thompson is onscreen is brilliant to watch. Travers’s insults are more out of frustration rather than a vicious streak and, for the most part, her observations are spot on. To be one of the acting greats, it’s not only about delivering assured dialogue; it’s about the mannerisms and expressions. Emma Thompson should run master classes on how to make an audience laugh with a raise of the eyebrows, or conveying pages of backstory solely with a gaze; she makes it look all-too easy.

While most of the film’s praise has been focused on Thompson, Tom Hanks is equally impressive. Rather than the permanently grinning, cheery uncle portrayed in a TV commercial early on in the film, Hanks’s Disney is far more complicated. He is charming, with a glass-half-full approach to life, but he is also a businessman who, one way or the other, gets what he wants. When Travers storms out of meetings, threatening to return to England, or making all sorts of demands, Disney is shaking with rage, refusing to be beaten. Hanks has made a career of delivering spot-on regional American accents, and whatever role he plays, you cannot help but root for him. Hanks gives a well-judged portrayal of Disney: he is the caring father-figure from the intros to his weekly TV cartoons, but Hanks also reminds us that this is a man on a charm offensive and, one way or another, he will bring Mary Poppins to the big screen.

Saving Mr Banks spends half its time showing Travers fighting with her creative team, but also goes back to her childhood to explain why she is so disapproving of herself and others, and why she refuses to let her famous nanny be sprinkled with Disney’s trademark charm. Normally I hate exposition in films; it feels cheap, like the filmmakers are treating their audience like idiots. “In case you don’t get it, here’s why (insert character name here) behaves this way!” For me, very few films have managed to use flashbacks and get away with it. Saving Mr Banks doesn’t just get away with it, Travers’s childhood is part-and-parcel of the film, as well as being gorgeously filmed by John Schwartzman. Travers’s father (played with heart-rending perfection by Colin Farrell) encourages his daughter to use her imagination, to be whoever she wants to be. Yet her father uses his dreams and imagination to escape what is going on around him. He is an alcoholic, unable to hold down a job, committed to his own self destruction.

Disney and Travers are at the opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum. Walt Disney sees life as bleak enough, so why create stories that mirror the worries and problems of everyday lives? P.L. Travers saw writing as a way of facing problems, recovering from them, rather than a form of escapism. Admirably, Saving Mr Banks gives plenty of screen time to both sides of the argument.

For a Disney film about one of Disney’s most successful films, Saving Mr Banks is far from a two hour advert for the Mary Poppins DVD. For the most part, the film avoids the sugary sweetness that Travers loathed about Disney’s films. Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith get the mix of comedy and heartache absolutely right; Travers is razor-sharp right up until the end and, during the film’s poignant moments, at no point do you feel like you are being tricked into shedding a tear.

Like all good “Making of” films, Saving Mr Banks manages to make its source material even more profound than it already was. Mary Poppins is moving enough, but after watching how the Disney film came to be, it’s unlikely you will be able to listen to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” without welling up.

Saving Mr Banks narrowly misses out on being perfect due to the film’s last ten minutes, when Travers goes to the world premiere and sees her creation, and her father, up there on the cinema screen. The rest of the film is understated and honest. Here this final scene feels like John Lee Hancock is smacking you around the head, making sure you realise that everything you have watched has led to this moment. While the wheels don’t exactly fall off, you feel that this is exactly the kind of candyfloss Travers would have hated.

This is me being picky. Saving Mr Banks is faultless in weaving its two narratives together; Travers’s childhood and her fight with the Disney machine. Other films that have tried the same method generally make you wish one storyline or the other would come back onscreen. The making of Mary Poppins is one of the last great films of 2013.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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