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Review: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Premise: A dramatization of the difficult collaboration between author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in the effort to adapt Travers’ book Mary Poppins into a motion picture.

What Works: Because Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney production dramatizing the making of a Disney film by Walt Disney, the picture sets up the audience to expect a tribute piece to the filmmaker and his studio. While Disney (the man and the company) come off pretty well, Saving Mr. Banks is really about the life of author P.L. Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins books from which the 1964 film was based. In today’s Hollywood movies, female characters rarely figure into the stories being told. That alone makes Saving Mr. Banks a notable picture but regardless of the conventions of the marketplace, the part of P.L. Travers is a great piece of character writing and she is brought to life on screen in a terrific performance by Emma Thompson. As she is first introduced, Travers is depicted as a difficult and frequently rude woman but the filmmakers and the actress smartly deconstruct that veneer by flashing backwards to Travers’ childhood and exploring the roots of her literary characters. By demonstrating why Mary Poppins was so important to Travers, this fictional character also becomes important to the audience and as harsh as Travers may be, it is clear that this toughness is an effort to protect the integrity of her creation. This explanation of Travers’ past allows Saving Mr. Banks to do something exceptional; the filmmakers link the lighthearted, family friendly entertainment that Disney is often associated with to deeper and more challenging issues. And in this way, Saving Mr. Banks gets at something complicated and meaningful about childhood and the function of fantasy films.

What Doesn’t: Movies that dramatize the making of famous motion pictures face particular challenges, especially when the movie or the filmmaker being dramatized have become cultural institutions. For example, 2012’s Hitchcock, which dramatized the making of Psycho, was too reverential both to the filmmaker and to his film and some of its dramatic inventions (namely dream sequences of Hitchcock conversing with serial killer Ed Gein) took the story in unnecessary and irrelevant directions. In other cases, the people or the studio making the film can create credibility problems for their own movie, such as in Baadasssss!, a dramatization of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; the original film was directed by Melvin Van Peebles and the dramatization of its production was directed by his son Marvin. In the case of Saving Mr. Banks both of these issues come to bear. This is a Disney production about Walt Disney making a Disney film, and not just any Disney film but one of the studio’s flagship titles. As the movie depicts it, Walt Disney was a wholesome and polite creative genius who used his wit and charm to work with an intransigent and hostile author, and eventually P.L. Travers’ obstinacy was overcome by the wonders of the Magic Kingdom. However, it is well documented that Travers hated the Disney movie and so Saving Mr. Banks is at some level fundamentally untrue. On the other hand, Saving Mr. Banks is also about the power of movies to reimagine the past, realize our ideals, and thereby rehabilitate ourselves, so the charge of dishonesty is not so cut and dried. How a viewer feels about Saving Mr. Banks will ultimately depend how he or she feels about the Walt Disney Company and about corporate media in general. To view it cynically, this is a film in which the wishes and ideas of an author are steamrolled by commercial interests as her character is remolded to fit the Disney brand. On the other hand, Travers’ complaints about Disney’s Mary Poppins were wrong and the movie has enjoyed a long and vibrant life on its own merits.

Bottom Line: However problematic it may be and whatever its compromises, Saving Mr. Banks is a well-made film with a terrific performance by Emma Thompson. Like Finding Neverland, this is a picture that explores the way fantasy allows us to deal with life’s difficulties.  

Episode: #473 (January 12, 2014)