Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: "Saving Mr. Banks"

Director: John Lee Hancock
Runtime: 125 minutes

Saving Mr. Banks begins and ends with shots of the clouds, which is just as well, seeing as the film seems to have been written and created with its head up among them. A sugar-coated, albeit never treacly, slice of Disney history, the film goes down easy, though it can't help but leave a sour taste in light of how events actually panned out. Emma Thompson is as effective and effortlessly watchable as ever as the film's lead, but even her work isn't enough to raise the material above (largely harmless) mediocrity.

Right off of the bat, it's clear that writer P.L. Travers (Thompson) isn't terribly enthusiastic about Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) desire to turn her beloved Mary Poppins novels into a film. The stories, Travers insists, don't lend themselves to a feature film, especially if said film is to include musical numbers and, even worse, animated sequences. From the moment Travers sets foot on her flight from London to LA, she's standoffish with everyone from flight attendants to hotel bell boys. Her cheery hired Disney driver (Paul Giamatti) tells her that the sun has come out to greet her. Travers responds by remarking that the City of Angels smells like chlorine and sweat.

Travers' mood doesn't improve after meeting Disney, or the team of writers and songwriters who have been tasked with the adaptation (Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman). Hardly a line in the script goes by without a correction or objection from the protective author, who shoots down everything from set designs to the eventually famous lyric "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." If there are parts of Saving Mr. Banks that are legitimately entertaining and informative, it's the early butting of heads between the Disney creatives and the author. Thompson's no nonsense, almost school marm-ish delivery is a highlight, and lends some contentious spark to an otherwise adequate film. 

Less sure are the flashbacks detailing Travers' childhood in Australia, the experiences of which inspired the Poppins books. When Thompson is on screen, there's a level of restraint in both the writing and in Hancock's direction. With Thompson gone, however, the flashbacks often come off as a touch hoakey, despite events that lend a darker shading to the narrative. Instead of being anchored around Thompson, the trips into the past are shouldered on Colin Farrell as Travers' troubled, alcoholic father. Farrell has proven himself a talented actor, especially in dark comedies, but he seems miscast here. The overeager image he projects - in general or around his young children - tends to ring false. Moments between father and daughter that should charm are, instead, bland and hammy. More effective is Ruth Wilson as Travers' troubled mother, despite her performance largely consisting of reactions to her husband's actions. 

Oddly, the most effective secondary thread has nothing to do with Mr. Disney or the Travers family's Outback melodrama. Though their scenes rarely build outside of a few quips, Thompson and Giamatti's slow-building friendship leads to a lovely conclusion that feels more in line with who Travers was, and what she stood for. The movie eventually has her won over by the 1964 Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke film, which undercuts the author's resilience and regret over the enterprise. On the other hand, Travers' relationship with her happy-go-lucky driver, however embellished or invented, have a mark of truth to them that transcends the otherwise pedestrian material, albeit only by a hair's breadth. 

The rest of the film is a handsome, though uninspired, technical package, nicely capturing the period without doing anything to truly stand out. From the costumes to the generic Thomas Newman score, it all looks and sounds right, even though none of the techs leave an impression. In many ways, Saving Mr. Banks resembles last year's Hitchcock, another film about creative battles behind iconic Hollywood products. It gets the job done and provides a few moments of enjoyment, but it's ultimately little more than a sanitized take on a story that has thornier complexities  that deserved to be unpacked and explored. 

Grade: C+

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