Friday, December 13, 2013

Reviewing 'Mr. Banks'

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) implores
P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him film Mary Poppins.
"Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking." -- Mary Poppins

Call Saving Mr. Banks muddled, then. Deliberately and unapologetically so. Yes, this makes for a less than perfect movie, but Banks approaches its subject matter with such heart-on-its-sleeve earnestness, only the most hardened cynics will fail to get caught up in its spell.

Purporting to tell the tale of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) cajoled the prickly author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), into signing over the film rights of her popular children's book to him, Saving Mr. Banks jettisons much of what really happened--Walt never escorted Mrs. Travers through Disneyland; in fact, he left town during her visit--in favor of depicting a highly fictionalized battle of wills between two creative forces of nature. You can decide for yourself if this fast and loose handling of the facts is a deal-breaker or not. I chose to not let it be.

Mrs. Travers meets The Boys, (l. to r.) B.J. Novak,
Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford and Emma Thompson.
Mrs. Travers comes to Walt's Burbank studio hell-bent on protecting her story from becoming Disneyfied. She's against it being a musical, against it having animation, against it starring Dick Van Dyke (apparently she was okay with Julie Andrews). She confronts not only Walt on her crusade but also screenwriter Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). The source of her stubborn determination is presented through a series of childhood flashbacks in a remote, hardscrabble town in Australia where we meet her gregarious, alcoholic father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell, quite good) and her meek, overwhelmed mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson). P.L., nicknamed Ginty (Annie Buckley) as a child, adores her father, but is repeatedly let down by his many shortcomings, most notably his weakness for strong drink. It's only with the arrival of Margaret's Poppins-like sister Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) that the Goff family finds any sense of stability.

Young Ginty (Annie Buckley) and her father,
Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).
All this backstory exists to soften the audience's attitude towards Mrs. Travers--or just "Mrs." as her good-natured L.A. limo driver (Paul Giamatti, effortlessly affable) refers to her. It's also there to ultimately provide Walt with the key to unlock Mrs. Travers' cold heart and earn her trust. This is all Pop Psychology 101 stuff with pat solutions to what otherwise would be complex problems in the real world. We never doubt for a moment that director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith are going for a happy ending here. It's also no spoiler to reveal that Mrs. Travers ultimately capitulates and Mary Poppins gets made into a movie. Perhaps you've seen it.

The Happiest Place on Earth? Walt (Tom Hanks) escorts
Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Disneyland.
And yet, for all it's feel-good predictability, Saving Mr. Banks never comes off forced. It finds its soft, sentimental center honestly through the strength of its fine cast. Emma Thompson does a wonderful job at striking just the right balance between P.L. Travers' sharp-tongued defiance and her humanity. Mrs. Travers doesn't resist the creative overtures of Walt and his crew just to be difficult, but rather in steadfast defense of the very real characters that inhabit her books. She is the immovable object to Walt's irresistible force. As Walt, Tom Hanks is, well, Tom Hanks. And although he never disappears entirely into the role, he exudes a wily charm as the studio mogul who's used to getting his way and will play every card in his hand to do so.

There are those who will carp about Saving Mr. Banks lack of historical accuracy. To them I say it's a movie, not a documentary. Meet it on its own terms and you will find magic there, a celebration of the creative process and the determined people who intend to see their stories told their way.

Related: 'Saving Mr. Banks,' 'Mary Poppins' and 'Thor' in 'The Mouse Castle Lounge'
'Saving Mr. Banks' and Saving Walt Disney's Birthplace in the MCL

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review, Tim, I am looking forward to seeing this movie, but have been finding it hard to "believe" that Tom Hanks IS Walt Disney.

    I understand the desire, for most, for historical accuracy but this is Hollywood. Show me a movie based on a true story that isn't changed in someway to alter the outcome in a more positive light. Going to the movies to see a film about a beloved man and a beloved movie should be fun, not filled with harsh criticisms about a few inaccuracies. I bet if there were a true documentary about Walt, or any highly regarded figure, many of the faithful followers would be disenchanted by what they learn. No one is (practically)perfect, except Mary Poppins.