Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the book “Mary Poppins,” is advised to close a deal with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) because she is running out of money. Though the writer realizes the difficulty of her financial situation, the story is really important to her so she cannot let go. If she does sign over her rights to Disney, it means two things: the film will be a musical and it will contain animation. She finds the idea repulsive. She believes songs and dancing penguins will take away the necessary gravity from her original work.
“Saving Mr. Banks,” written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is as light as a feather. Although Thompson and Hanks are entertaining as a pair, the picture is not an effective comedy-drama because the dramatic elements are so syrupy to the point of indigestion. The film is divided into two time points: the novelist’s visit to Los Angeles in 1961 and her childhood in 1906 when she learns her father’s addiction to alcohol (Colin Farrell). The former, the comedy, is a joy while the latter, the drama, is bereft of energy. A lopsided picture results.
Thompson finds the right tone to make an entertaining character. Though she creates a very uptight Travers, not once does she come off mean-spirited. In fact, we can understand where she is coming from because handing over what is important to us to someone else who we fear is not as passionate or invested is often difficult. Interestingly, even though she is supposed to be the main character of the movie, most of us will find ourselves on the side of Disney and his artists without realizing why. Such is the power of branding and legacy in action.
The screenplay allowing Travers to be surrounded by merry characters is a good source of comedy. Every time she criticizes a proposed direction, an accompanying reaction shot is shown at the right time. Also, it lingers just enough to showcase their frustration, shock, or embarrassment. It becomes clear quite quickly that Travers’ approach is a dictatorship rather than a partnership. And yet when the tone shifts just a little, especially during the scenes between the writer and her driver (Paul Giamatti), it feels just right. The sensitive moments are earned.
Flashbacks to Australia ’61 are a bore. The sentimentality is just too much. Put the overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson—miscast and the character underwritten), alcoholic father, and a daughter’s innocence (Annie Rose Buckley) being crushed into the mix, there is a lack of uplift within the time period to balance the sad moments. At one point, a character chooses to commit suicide. I was shocked—not in a good way. What if children who love Robert Stevenson’s “Mary Poppins” end up seeing this? How is that appropriate? In my opinion, if a serious subject like suicide is brought up, it should at least be acknowledged or explained later.
Another problem, though somewhat of a lesser degree, is that I never felt as though Disney ever liked his punctilious collaborator. His gestures to convince Travers to sign the paperwork feel hollow. I suppose deals are made in real life without people having to like each other or to meet in person, but it feels a bit off here. One gets the impression that a more realistic layer is tacked on late into script development.