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Non-Review Review: Saving Mr. Banks

“I’m tired of remembering it that way,” Walt Disney admits of his childhood at the climax of Saving Mr. Banks, in a rare moment of personal candour. There are moments when Saving Mr. Banks seems to come very close to working – exploring the link that exists between memory and imagination. In a way, that’s very much what Walt Disney was all about, adapting and renovating classic stories in such a way that they seemed to be more the stories that we wanted to hear than the stories that we remember.

Unfortunately, for too much of its runtime, Saving Mr. Banks serves more of an example of the process of “imagineering” that an exploration of it.

savingmrbanks1

It’s not quite tell-all-vision…

The story of Walt Disney’s attempts to turn P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins into a major motion picture, against the resistance of the author. It feels like it should a two-hander, a battle between two competing ideologies and approaches to storytelling. Travers is repulsed by the gaudiness of the Disney business model. “Poor A.A. Milne,” she observes as she moves a giant stuffed Winnie the Pooh teddy bear out of her way.

Travers is trying to protect her creation against what she sees as the tackiness of Disney’s approach to storytelling. Her primary contractual stipulation is that Disney won’t turn Mary Poppins into a cartoon. She protests the decision to add music to the film. In one of the film’s wittier moments, she objects to “responstable” as a word that doesn’t exist as the song-writers hide the lyrics for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from sight. She’s struggling to preserve the artistic integrity of her work – right down to arguing about the moustache on Mr. Banks’ face.

There’ a nice conflict here, pitting the writer against the head of a massive multimedia empire, and the strongest sequences in Saving Mr. Banks feature the “charm offensive” waged between Disney and Travers, as Disney finds himself trying to convince the author to trust her with his work. Disney is seemingly waging a war of attrition, including a trip to Disneyland and numerous absurd concessions including an agreement not to use the colour red.

A major Hollywood motion picture dealing the making of a family classic, Saving Mr. Banks was always going to self-congratulatory – particularly as it’s produced by Disney itself. It’s the same sort of film as Argo or Hitchcock, a great story about Hollywood told by Hollywood. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Saving Mr. Banks works best when it plays to that, as catchy tunes and charm seem to make dents in Travers’ cold-fish persona.

Making music...

Making music…

Unfortunately, Saving Mr. Banks can’t quite commit to this. It seem unwilling to trust the conflict between Travers and Disney to sustain interest. Disney himself feels more like a peripheral presence than a supporting lead, with the film unwilling to do to much to poke at and explore the man behind the legend. We learn that Travers is anti-social, on quite a few medications and dealing with personal issues. The closest that we get to any insight into Disney, outside the official line, is when Travers pithily describes him as “hyperactive.”

The film borrows liberal amounts of Tom Hanks’ charm to paste over the cracks, but that charisma only extends so far. Disney skirts the edges of the film, ready to offer a warming anecdote or a nice summation of the movie’s themes, but never seeming like a real character. His lung cancer – which wouldn’t be diagnosed for a couple of years after the release of Mary Poppins – is hinted at. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot early plans for Disney World Florida in the background of late scenes, but there’s never any real context for any of that.

It’s a shame, given how fascinating a character Walt Disney was and how fantastic an actor Tom Hanks is, and how intriguing his philosophy about the role of imagination is. Late in the film, Disney suggests that imagination allows us to come to terms with the harsh realities – a position that could do with more development and exploration. (Consider, for example, the use of “magic as entertainment” in The Prestige.)

However, instead of using the two extremely talented lead performers signed on to the film, Saving Mr. Banks instead opts for a clumsily Freudian explanation of Travers’ personality issues. Naturally, she has a tragic back story, one we’re treated to over the course of film through a series of melodramatic flashbacks that occasionally pointedly mirror Mary Poppins. It feels like lazy writing, writing that doesn’t trust Emma Thompson to bring Travers to life, or the audience to reach their own conclusion.

A familiar Walt-z...

A familiar Walt-z…

Instead, we get a bunch of dysfunctional family clichés, as Travers’ parents seem to compete to see who can give her the most deeply-rooted psychological issues. (Her father scores bonus points with the on-the-nose Freudian slip of “give her a drink…” instead of “give her a hand.”) Thomas Newman’s score makes sure that the audience is clued in on exactly how to feel at any given moment, including some incredibly irritating scene transition music.

To be fair, there are a lot of elements of Saving Mr. Banks that work. The casting is pretty superb, including Bradley Whitford as a put-upon writer and Paul Giamatti as a disarming chauffeur. Even Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson do the best that they can with the flashback material they are given. Similarly, the production design is quite striking and the film works best when it plays into the behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories, including Tom Hanks playing up Disney’s “aw, shucks” all-American persona and the incorporation of various music and lyrics and production elements.

It’s hard to resist Walt Disney hearing familiar chords out of a studio window late at night, or his assertion that going up on the word “down” in A Spoon Full of Sugar is “not ironic, it’s iconic.” This is American myth-making, and while it never feels particularly insightful or provocative, it plays better than trite family drama.

Saving Mr. Banks never works quite as well as it should, seemingly unable to commit to the sort of self-congratulatory “behind the musical” story that it appears to want to be. Instead, everything feel a little too awkward and familiar, a little too generic and too simplistic. It turns out that sometimes you need more than a spoon full of sugar…

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