The fact that I have never seen Mary Poppins should not compromise the extent of happiness that I experienced as a youngster. Yes, it may seem a bit bizarre that I never indulged in Julie Andrew’s Oscar winning performance and one of the most iconic screen roles of all time, but the fact of the matter is, Mary Poppins is a definite Disney film classic whether or not I have seen it. And although I may be in the minority of film critics who have never had the opportunity to see Poppins, I can assure you that it would have not changed my mind on the overall result of John Lee Hancock‘s cookie-cutter retelling film Saving Mr. Banks. Formulaic, emotionally manipulating and typical in Disney’s ugly duckling to sparkling swan narrative arc, Mr.Banks needs a lot more saving than it thinks.
Walt Disney was a visionary–a man who succeeded in areas of the film medium like no one else (as seen with his twenty-two Oscars). His passion for cinema, his love for his children and his ambition to share with the world the happiness and magically wonderful world of Disney was uncompromising. All of these characteristics and intuitive passion was justifiably depicted by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Hanks, who in my honest opinion, offers a more studied and layered role as Disney than his performance as a cargo ship captain in Captain Phillips, delivers a nuanced performance filled with the many quirks, ticks, and mannerism of the late great visionary.
Like any good film plots, the narrative of Mr.Banks is built upon Disney‘s promise to his children, a promise he swore to them could not be broken. Plus, when you are Walt Disney, the promise of adapting a beloved children’s book into a feature film is not that hard, is it?
Apparently it is. Especially since the author of the beloved Mary Poppins book series is adamant about not having “fairy dust” sprinkled all over her cherished literary creation. Stern on her position to not sell-out and give in to the powerhouse giant that is Disney, author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) eventually does give in and allows Disney to sprinkle fairy dust, include animation and catchy singalongs to her childhood memories and close-to-the-heart character, all because, as she puts it, “I love my house”.
Now I know Walt never condoned smoking in his films and animations because he wanted to get his point across to children that smoking is bad, but is selling out and giving in to “the man” a better lesson for children to learn? It is through inconsistencies like this one that make Hankcock’s film as rebuffed a film as Traver’s initial reaction to Walt Disney‘s offer.
One of the many reasons I was so unsettled with Saving Mr.Banks is because of its poor attempt to shed little light on the truth, and fragment the little truth presented between Travers and Disney. The reality remains that, in 1964, after Travers saw what Disney did to her Mary Poppins, enraged, she disallowed their agreement and refused any other Mary Poppins literary book be interpreted. Haven’t you ever wondered why a Disney movie and instant classic that cost Disney only $6 million US dollars then and made $103 million dollars domestically, never had a sequel? Especially since Travers wrote seven more chapters of the Poppins world? The final outcome, seen through the pages of history books was quite ugly–one that tainted and disgusted Travers for so long that her initial reaction and adamant refusal for a Mary Poppins musical, even after forty years, was met with the same dismal response as her first with Disney.
If one thing is for sure it’s that, as aggravated and uninterested Travers was with Disney at the time, it was sure highlighted and brought to life by Emma Thompson. Thompson‘s noel-cowardliness as a prissy, blunt and rude mannered behaviour (in a way only English people could be) really saves the film’s authenticity of emotions the author was feeling while she was, so eloquently put it at the time, “being seduced”. Thompson‘s ability to be the snobbiest person she was in front of the happiest person in California was quite the contrast–one that served the film quite well.
The acting in Saving Mr. Banks is really the lifeboat that rescues the film as a whole. Hancock was able to assemble a stellar cast of magnificent actors whose talent on-screen really pushes home the already heavy emotions and tragic tales. Between flashbacks of Travers’ childhood to the present day with her negotiations with Disney, the most memorable characters in the film are both the most impactful people of Travers’ life, as a child, and during her unfulfilling and stressful time at Disney. Colin Farrell plays Travers’ father, a loving family man and drunken bank manager in Australia who, given his sparse screen time and limited yet cliched patriarchal antics, reaches right to the pit of our hearts joyfully. In the present day, Paul Giamatti plays Travers’ loyal and obedient chauffeur who perfectly balances the films heartwarming comedic relief with moments of sincere love. It’s roles like these that solidify Giamatti as not just a good supporting actor, but a versatile one as well.
The interesting trend of Hollywood films lately and their fascination with telling stories where the ending is already apparently known, is one that didn’t serve Mr.Banks as well as Affleck’s Argo did. Everyone knows that Travers eventually succumbs to Disney and Mary Poppins is made. Although I am sure that many people did not know about the difficulty the studio as well as Disney himself, had with making the film isn’t common knowledge. Travers eventually has her change of heart and everyone is happy at the end, well, except for her of course.
When screenwriter Kelly Marcel began writing the script for Saving Mr.Banks, she was not on the Disney payroll. Taking a huge risk writing the script as an independent screenwriter with no affiliation to Disney, she realized that there was only one studio that was able to approve her script and had possession of the intellectual rights–the House of Mouse. Once Alan Horn (Chairman of Walt Disney Studios) got wind of the script and a hold of it soon after, they agreed that the film could and would only be made by Walt Disney, since no other studio would want to make a film about Disney promoting Disney. Careful and nimble with the final product, director Hancock as well as numerous script supervisors, Disney consultants, including Richard M. Sherman, the original composer of Mary Poppins and ironically enough a man who was under the consultation of Travers and the studio itself, tried to craft a film that is said to be the official “sincere and heartfelt apology” to Travers for the troubles and misunderstandings between her and Disney during the creation of the film. Unfortunately, the film seems to steer in the direction of a self-promotional infomercial than an authentic piece of cinema whose intent was to apologize to Travers for the grief they put her through. Hancock and company create a fairytale-like, justified money grab for the already powerful Disney brand. It remains as that; Disney will never serve themselves their own embarrassing blow, but the film is a flat and unemotional misstep for the magical Disney brand. One that will surely be seen at the box office.
Night Film Reviews: 4/10 Stars.
Captured by the charm of Hanks as Disney or Saving Mr.Banks as a whole? Or rather bothered by its unoriginal presentation? Leave your comments and feelings below!