Movie Review: Saving Mr Banks
I think when it comes to books being adapted into motion pictures, the large majority of authors are just not satisfied. Word was Roald Dahl disliked the way Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory detoured from his original work, and video exists of Michael Ende voicing his displeasure at what Hollywood did to his book, The Neverending Story.
When it comes to “rewriting the book” in some cases, one can often look to Walt Disney himself. To this day, the majority of people tend to prefer the company’s versions of popular stories to their originals. Of course, when it came to authors voicing displeasure over Disney adapting their work, one of the more famously-known is author P.L. Travers, which is the subject of Walt Disney Pictures’ latest release, Saving Mr Banks.
The film starts in 1961, where Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) seems to be in dire financial straits. However, there may be a silver lining that her agent Diarmuid Russell (Ronan Vibert) begs her to take. For over 20 years, Walt Disney(Tom Hanks) has been wanting to adapt the author’s Mary Poppins story, and is currently doing some pre-production work in California. Giving into this 20-year request, Pamela jets off to Los Angeles, though seemingly sure she is going to end her two week trip without signing over the rights to her book.
Needless to say, once she lands in California, Pamela has “a few words” on almost everything. She thoroughly detests her hotel room being filled with Disney merchandise, the use of “nonsense” words in the songs composed by Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman & BJ Novak), and refuses to fall under Walt’s charm. She also grows rather disconcerted over how the character of Mr Banks is to be portrayed in the film.
Also juxtaposed within the 1961 storyline, are remembrances of Pamela’s childhood in Australia. Colin Farrell plays the role of her father, whose imaginative flights of fancy and charm captivate the little girl, but when they have to move due to his job, the world slowly seems to change for young Pamela (Annie Rose Buckley), in many ways.
While much of the promotional material has shown Hanks’ Disney persona front and center, the real scope of the film revolves around Ms Travers (as she prefers to be called), to the point where I would nickname the film, Citizen Travers. During her time at the studio, each meeting she had was recorded, and numerous tapes were listened to by the cast and crew. Her character is definitely a juicy role for Emma Thompson, who was faced with a rather difficult task of taking someone who probably annoyed more people than she enlightened. Even so, Thompson is able to bring a vulnerability and understanding to the audience in the role she has undertaken.
Thompson even delivers one of my favorite lines in the film, when Travers fears the worst that Disney can do to her beloved nanny: “I know what he’s going to do to her. She’ll be cavorting…and, twinkling.” That line reminded me of the vitriol spouted by fans in the last few years, who have seen The Walt Disney Company acquire such companies as Marvel, and Lucasfilm, LTD.
In some films, a rather abrasive character will be given a foil, and that role falls to Paul Giamatti, as Pamela’s limo driver. Giamatti’s role as “an ordinary man” is charming and enjoyable, rolling with the punches that his guest dishes out, and willing to be concerned when he notices her in contemplation.
While we know very little about Ms Travers, the one person who has been put under the microscope since the first images, is Tom Hanks. Even in interviews, Hanks has claimed he looks nothing like Uncle Walt, but where he excels, is in trying to capture the personality of a man that many know largely from popular culture. However, Hanks knows there is more to Walt than just squinting his eyes a little tighter. I think those who have heard candid interviews with Walt Disney will probably see more of Walt’s personality than most. For me, a highlight is when Walt is telling Travers about delivering newspapers in Kansas City. This is a key scene where it feels that Hanks just blends into his role.
One thing I do wish the film had, was a tagline stating, Inspired by Actual Events. Certain elements are true to life, but others seem to have been shoehorned in to make for a more entertaining experience. One of those revolves around the big scene of Walt taking Travers on a personal tour of Disneyland. Word is Travers did visit The Happiest Place on Earth, but not with Walt. As well, there’s a scene near the end that worked well in 1998’s The Parent Trap, but here, may make some go, “yeah, right.”
John Lee Hancock directs from a script penned by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, and the subject matter seems suitable material given his past credits. John’s resume includes films about those triumphing over difficult circumstances, with the likes of The Rookie, and 2009’s The Blind Side.
The filmmakers know that fans of the company and the Poppins film are going to want references, and they get them in spades. Even certain moments in Pamela’s childhood echo some of the film’s scenes. There’s even an “author” joke in here that is not time-appropriate, but I guess the filmmakers felt they could get away with it (and most likely, Travers would have said something about it too).
One highlight of seeing this film, was that I got to view it as part of a double-bill, with Mary Poppins playing right before it. I think until this screening, I had never seen Poppins all the way through in one sitting. Seeing it at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, with a nearly-full auditorium definitely helped make it one of the few great communal theater experiences I’ve had. I will admit, seeing the song Step in Time on a big screen made it even more exciting. In a sense, Mary Poppins is the perfect storm of a film combining the studio’s penchant for storytelling, animation, and live-action filmmaking, and physical special effects.
In fact, I’d say if you are planning to see Saving Mr Banks, it might be best to have a viewing of Poppins to refresh your memory. After going from Poppins to Banks, there were definitely some things I wouldn’t have noticed had I gone into the showing “blind.”
When it comes to viewing this film overall, some are going to come out on one of two sides. On one hand, you’ll have those being almost like Pamela Travers, rolling their eyes at much of what they just saw, hardly believing much of the circumstances or little details. The others will be more like Walt: they will give into the emotions and the images on the screen, and it will touch them deeply, as many a good Disney feature will.
The film almost subscribes to that old adage Walt had about the films he made: For every laugh, there should be a tear. That definitely seemed the case in several places in the film. The trailers do make the film look overly-cheerful, but there are a few places where it can get a little dark and unsettling, which explains this being rated PG-13, which is partially for “unsettling images” (and…there were a few).
Saving Mr Banks is not a masterpiece of film making, but it is a competently-created feature film. It manages to bring a new perspective onto a 40-year-old film, as well as two creative figures you might not know much about. While I do see it gaining favor with those who are fans of Disney, I figure we’ll have to wait and see how the general public receives it in the next few weeks.
*Saving Mr Banks will premier in limited release on December 13, and nationwide on December 20*