Release: Friday, December 20, 2013
What’s that old adage — the Poppins you do know is better than the Poppins you don’t?
Director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) takes on the challenge of recreating the experiences shared by Walt Disney, his band of dedicated, enthusiastic studio hands and P.L. Travers, the author who dreamt up the timeless and near-mythical Mary Poppins, during the time in which she and Disney were in talks of adapting her beloved children’s book into a motion picture. As he was backed by Disney studios, Hancock’s final product, despite it featuring award-worthy performances, can’t be described as an achievement so much as it may be considered a tidy, predictable Disney package.
At least in this case, though, the playing-it-safe strategy doesn’t completely devalue the price of your ticket. There is an infectious spirit that is inescapable — a quality that permeates everything from the lead performances to the set design to the editing — even if it’s one that comes off as more than a little self-congratulatory. Ignoring this, however, Saving Mr. Banks is a difficult film to dislike.
The charm is no secret. The A-list cast, led by Emma Thompson, makes this production pop. Her portrayal of the prickly author P.L. Travers may not be the definition of charming, but it is Thompson’s character’s perspective with which we are forced to try and identify. Contrast her with the eternally upbeat Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). His demeanor is a night and day difference from Travers’ and the pair are eminently watchable because of the rapport (or lack thereof). Toss in an enjoyable turn from Paul Giamatti as Travers’ taxi driver Ralph, and an amusing recreation of the musically-inclined Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman as Richard and B.J. Novak as Robert) and the film suddenly has the gravitas that Mrs. Travers feared would be missing from this script she’s having to approve.
As if the two lead roles don’t provide enough substance, Saving Mr. Banks feels compelled to shower the viewer with scenes that are intended to gain sympathy — because, let’s face it, sympathy is not exactly the first emotion felt whenever the author is present.
The present-day development of the film is juxtaposed against Travers’ childhood. Both timelines occupy roughly the same amount of screen time, and while the constant jumping back and forth starts to become nauseating after awhile, the plot device is mostly successful in
stirring up manipulating the emotions. Saving Mr. Banks starts off in the past before fast-forwarding to Travers’ modern-day life in England, where she has more or less given up on writing, is reluctant (to say the least) to have this Walt Disney fellow seize control of her life’s work, and is going bankrupt. Seeing as though the third condition is the most pressing of all her current issues, the two weeks she’d be required to spend in Los Angeles meeting Disney and discussing film rights is an opportunity she can ill afford to miss out on.
Of course, the moment she arrives on the scene she takes great pains to make life as difficult as possible for everyone around her. Criticizing everything from the way the American air smells like chlorine, to the fact that the Shermans are inventing words to insert into the film, to the way Disney addresses people on a first-name basis, the (formerly) esteemed author quickly loses what little interest she had to begin with in this project. The rest, as they say, is
Though Saving Mr. Banks‘ narrative structure becomes repetitive after the one hundredth flashback, Hancock has done a great job of staying consistent with the Disney image. (Did he really have any choice, though?) Predictability is not only what sustains the story, but it’s a fact of life for the actual studio, too. Everyone already knows how musical Mary Poppins is going to end up becoming (thus Travers’ resistance against that concept being a fruitless effort); everyone is already aware of the film’s place in the canon of classic films (thus her concerns are also, ultimately pointless). What we didn’t realize or perhaps appreciate sufficiently beforehand was just how unlikely it was for the production to come into fruition. Thompson’s codger of a woman helps ensure that it took more than just a spoonful of sugar to make that medicine go down.
As difficult as it is to enjoy and embrace by the masses who have no doubt flocked to see this thing in the recent month, Thompson’s performance should be noted as the film’s saving grace. If it weren’t for her grouchiness, Hancock would undoubtedly have drowned the audience in his serendipitous charm. Thanks to great acting from two reliable leads, Saving Mr. Banks just manages to save itself from death-by-Disneyfication.
Recommendation: Hancock takes great pains to ensure his representation of the studio is as comforting as possible. Even despite the quarrelsome author, the movie still nearly overdoses on sweetness. The saccharine tone is just something viewers who aren’t completely wooed by Disney’s magic are going to have to get over. As another idea, avoid seeing this film if you have hesitations at all about it. This is one of those filmgoing experiences that if you hold any before going in, you’ll end up coming out of it with a big “I told myself so” written across your own forehead. This doesn’t dismiss this as a bad film, just one that’s far too easy to predict.
Running Time: 120 mins.
Quoted: “Disappointments are to the soul what a thunderstorm is to the sky.”
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