Saturday, January 18, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

I was reluctant to see this film, Saving Mr. Banks, about Disney's process of courting P.L. Travers through the process of turning her Mary Poppins books into the classic movie musical it became, because, quite frankly, Walt Disney isn't someone that modern Hollywood can even come close to comprehending.

An all-American fierce capitalist and vehement anti-communist, modern Hollywood was eager to suck up the slander in Hollywood's Dark Prince which had it that Disney was an anti-semite (because lord knows the Sherman brother who walked with a limp because he'd paratrooped into Germany and helped liberate Dachau would've totally been cool with that) and also that he had his head frozen cryogenically.

So, here's a guy who's not only an artistic genius, a promoter of technology and arts, and a great businessman to boot, he's also pro-America and probably never did anything in his life which could be classified as snark. And snark is where Hollywood lives, currently.

The buzz was strong, though, and we'd seen everything else. And it's actually a very, very good movie. No, Tom Hanks doesn't really come across like Disney. He comes across like Tom Hanks in a Disney 'stache. And at the climax of the movie, he makes a speech to P.L. Travers that did not ring true. (Not the facts of the speech, but the idea that he would actually make that kind of speech, and say those things.)

And—and this sort of annoyed me—the premise of the movie is that Disney needs Travers to sign a release to make a movie, and she's very uptight and insists on being called "Mrs. Travers" so what does Disney do? Call her "Pam" the whole movie.

Really? Antagonize the woman you're going to need to sign this paper to make this venture work? And obliviously, too. Like he's not aware of it. It also seems wildly improbable that Disney would've missed the point of the Poppins story, i.e., that it is Mr. Banks that she's there to save.

I didn't like that he actually said "Mr. Disney was my dad." Even if he actually said it. Which brings up the main point:

It doesn't really matter. This is a solid movie about a writer coming to grips with her past and reality, and Emma Thompson kicks all kinds of ass in it. Disney isn't the main character—he's not much of a character at all, really, and more a deus ex machina who comes and goes as is needed to forward the plot.

Ostensibly, he's the one with the problem (getting Travers to sign), but he has no character arc, and he's not really going to suffer regardless of how things turn out. No, this is all about the fictitious Travers' journey.

As historical fiction, it's nonsense, pretty obviously. Travers and Disney had completely different ideas about how Mary Poppins should go down, and Travers hated the animation Disney used, and Disney made one of the great movies, one of the great musicals, and is probably largely responsible for Travers' books being read today.

And, I think, if they were alive today, Disney would love the film and Travers would hate it.

Nonsense aside, Thompson carries the film. It's about her, and in the first few seconds, with a close-up she gives a master class in acting. And it never lets up. She's incredibly difficult, especially to those around her, but to the audience she is warm. A great deal of the movie is done in flashbacks where young Travers grows up in increasingly hard times as her alcoholic father (whom she idolizes) drinks himself to death.

You know: Family film.

Nah, it's done well enough, with Colin Farrell being sufficiently charming and convincingly drunk to make us see how she might idolize him.

And this brings up the movie's other strengths: Besides Emma Thompson, there's Farrell, Ruth Wilson (the saucy Princess Besty from Anna Karenina and The Lone Ranger, but who saw that?) as Travers' mother, Paul Giamatti as the affable chauffeur who befriends Travers in L.A., Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman brothers, Rachel Griffiths, Bradley Whitford and on and on.

So, good acting. The exchanges between Giamatti and Thompson are especially nice. Hanks got the Disney mannerisms down; he didn't phone it in. (At no time was I in danger of thinking he was playing a real person, but that's not really his fault.)

Top notch score from 'strom favorite Thomas Newman, who did such classics as Finding Nemo and The Green Mile. (I told the kids almost immediately: "That's Thomas Newman!" They have no idea what I'm talking about or why I care.)

It moves along pretty well for a two-hour flick. The heart-wrenching flashbacks are actually more interesting than the contemporary timeline, I think in part because the contemporary timeline required a dramatic arc of characters who didn't actually have them.

John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Alamo) directs.

The Boy and The Flower liked it more than I did. I also liked it but there are a number of *s, †s and ‡s in my mind about it.

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