Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks Movie Review

The Walt Disney Company truly exists now to perpetuate its own myths. They include, but are not limited to, the idea that Walt Disney was the greatest human being who ever lived and was devoted exclusively to making people smile, and that a good wholesome family entertainment can solve most of life’s problems, often with a saccharine song and dance number. Saving Mr. Banks proposes some mythology of its own about the origins of P.L. Travers’ series of Mary Poppins books and the way Uncle Walt convinced her to sign over the rights.

Trafficking in another sort of myth-making, Tom Hanks is cast as Walt Disney. And if that isn’t the very pinnacle of nice guy Hanks roles, I don’t know what is. Hanks is a gifted actor, although Disney doesn’t ask a great deal of him apart from an oddly misplaced slightly southern drawl (Walt grew up in St. Louis). I just don’t see him really stretching and challenging himself, which is really more of a criticism by way of disappointment in Hanks the actor more than the movie. Every role he selects is carefully chosen with the intent of protecting an image. And that’s what director John Lee Hancock is tasked with at the helm of this Disney production, except he’s meant to protect the Disney brand.

Don’t expect much in the way of subtlety here. It’s a movie that prefers broad stereotypes over particular character traits. So Travers, instead of being presented as a complex woman with a complicated childhood and literary history, is a stiff upper-lipped proper Brit with no patience for things like tea from a paper cup or brash American behavior and for whom all the answers to unlocking her rigid adult life lie in the mystery of her alcoholic father who died when she was seven. Emma Thompson is a great actress who is sort of slumming in this sleepwalk of a role. That her name has been tossed about as a potential Oscar nominee less about her chops as a thespian than it does about the dearth of worthy female roles in Hollywood. Other broad strokes are painted over the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), those magical songwriters who gave life and bubbly zest to Mary Poppins the movie, and in Walt’s secretary, who is a caricature of little girl voice and behavior in the offices of the Mouse House. Paul Giamatti almost brings some real life flavor to the character of the limousine driver who carts Travers around Los Angeles until we learn that he’s also just a type – the optimistic and loving father of a disabled teenager whose presence in the story is to demonstrate for Travers that fathers can be different from her own.

As the simplistically plotted screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith plods along, the gaps of Travers’ childhood are filled in with glossy flashbacks that only hint and suggest serious family drama rather than clearly illustrate it. Her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) was a professional failure as a banker who had to relocate his family to middle-of-nowhere, Australia. At first, his alcoholism causes him to participate in adorable flights of fancy with his daughter, whom he has given a fantasy pet name. His attitude is to shield his children permanently from the difficulties of life by presenting everything as a game. Later this gives way to stumbling and embarrassment, illness and death. He treats his daughter not unlike the father played by Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, but without the Nazi atrocities and played out without end. The irony is that Disney is trying to show us how this has failed to prepare a little girl for the life of being a woman while continuing to pedal the same kind of fantasy for its audience, be it a crowd of moviegoers or theme park visitors. Disney is entirely about the perpetuation of myth and fantasy. That is the product they sell and they will fight at all costs to preserve it even when it means whitewashing history.

The story of Travers’ childhood might have made a far more interesting and darker story with hints as to the origins of Mary Poppins rather than the connect-the-dots and paint-by-numbers approach to the way childhood events shape our futures. Travers the grown woman shows a distaste for alcohol, pears, and any suggestion that a neglectful mother has no excuse. Then we learn about her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s inability to cope with motherhood, and an absurdly pedestrian provenance for pear hatred. Every behavior comes with an eventual reveal in flashback. All this is not even to mention the fact that Walt had foibles of his own and has been accused of some rather disagreeable personality traits. But the Disney Company agreed to show him stubbing out a cigarette, so I guess that provides for the sum total of the more negative aspects of Uncle Walt. Also, reportedly P.L. Travers was a bisexual woman known to have had long relationships with women and even adopted a son, who would have been ten years old during the events of Saving Mr. Banks. All this has been excised from the storyline. I understand that it’s not truly relevant to this particular story, but it’s also about Disney trying to alter a historical timeline and paint a portrait of a woman as completely sexless, uninterested in romance, and subordinate to the powers of persuasion of the head of major corporation.

I believe that Travers had serious misgivings about allowing what she viewed as a serious work of substance being turned into a vapid piece of fluff with animated penguins. That Saving Mr. Banks shows Mr. Disney ultimately convincing her – by getting her on a ride at Disneyland! – is a way of demonstrating the triumph of dull sweetness and schmaltz over heart and meat. A spoonful of sugar truly helps the medicine go down in the mythology of Disney.

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