Saturday, January 4, 2014

Unnecessarily Divergent, Saving Mr. Banks Underwhelms.

The Good: Wonderful acting, Good direction
The Bad: Loathsome characters, Poor pacing, Unremarkable story
The Basics: Trying to bamboozle viewers through its release during Oscar Pandering Season, Saving Mr. Banks is an unremarkable movie masquerading as “great.”

Every now and then, Disney surprises me with one of its live action films. I think I was one of the few people who was truly charmed by The Odd Life Of Timothy Green (reviewed here!) when it made its debut over a year ago. And yet, that movie tapped into something in me that I found myself absolutely, unexpectedly enjoying the film. My point is that I have no innate prejudice against the live action works that come out of Disney studios. I write that at the outset of my review of Saving Mr. Banks because this time I find myself on the opposite side of many of the critics. While much of the media seems to be charmed by Disney’s latest live-action work, I found Saving Mr. Banks to be ponderous and dull.

I think it is worth noting, after making such an assertion that: 1. I have no familiarity with the history of the events upon which Saving Mr. Banks is based, 2. I cannot recall having ever seen Mary Poppins or having read any of the books upon which the film was based, and 3. I like movies about the creative process - Cradle Will Rock (reviewed here!) for example masterfully presents multiple layers of the creation and presentation of artistic works – and I can certainly handle films that feature two or more parallel storylines, like Cloud Atlas (reviewed here!). But Saving Mr. Banks is no Cloud Atlas and, in fact, it reminded me strongly of Julie And Julia (reviewed here!) and all of the problems that film had. In short, the fundamental problem with Saving Mr. Banks is that it tries to cram two stories into one and it does a disservice to both. In the case of Saving Mr. Banks, the film clumsily blends the story of the making of the film Mary Poppins with the genesis of the Mary Poppins character from the author’s childhood experiences.

In 1961, Polly Travers is living in London, doing her best to resist selling the rights to the book Mary Poppins, when her agent convinces her to take a meeting with Walt Disney in Los Angeles. Just as P.L. travels to Disney, Travers Goff once led his family from their home in Australia, with his wife and three children. Arriving in the outback, Travers convinces his wife Margaret that life will be an adventure and he encourages the children to use their imaginations. Arriving at Walt Disney’s office after finding herself unimpressed with the hotel and driver, P.L. Travers is resistant to the idea of a film adaptation – especially a musical – of Mary Poppins. After a direct appeal from Walt Disney, Travers and the writers begin doing a line reading – with music – of their script for the live-action Mary Poppins.

In Australia in the past, Travers inspires his daughter with his flights of fancy and imaginative perspective. Margaret finds herself overwhelmed and unhappy, especially when she does much of the work of raising the children and Travers has the benefit of bonding with the children more. The unhappy family relationship between the Goffs informs the viewer to the motivations of the cranky P.L. Travers, who is protecting her intellectual property beyond all reason, sense, and profitability. Fighting every step of the way, P.L. does everything she can to sabotage Walt Disney’s attempt to make his daughters’ favorite literary character come to life on the big screen.

It’s easy to see what the writers and director John Lee Hancock are trying to do with Saving Mr. Banks: they belabor establishing P.L. Travers as something of an immovable object while weaving in the explanations for why Travers is the way she is. The explanation is drawn-out and not particularly entertaining; Travers Goff is a drunk and lives in his own little world, to the detriment of the mental health of his wife. P.L. Travers is protective of her intellectual property for a simple reason; she was hurt by the harsh realities of life that her father did not prepare her for and she idolized her Aunt Ellie who came to help the family out when Travers Goth struggled to get sober.

Unfortunately, the explanation is more obvious from the outset than the writers and director would like the viewers to believe. While the first flashbacks are clunky, the leaps between present and past soon even out and the purpose of them becomes painfully obvious. Long before Ellie appears on screen, most viewers will be able to figure out where Saving Mr. Banks is going. Given that, much of Saving Mr. Banks seems unnecessarily drawn out. It makes P.L. Travers no more likable to see her horrible childhood belabored; one good, concise flashback could have gotten across the entire point of the sum of the flashbacks in Saving Mr. Banks.

On a character level, P.L. Travers is not compelling and it is hard to be sympathetic to Travers Goff (he’s not the first alcoholic who ruined his daughter’s life and his traumatizing of her is hardly the most extreme witnessed on screen). By contrast, the acting in Saving Mr. Banks is homogenously wonderful. Emma Thompson is brilliantly grumpy as P.L. Travers and when the writer is not being off-putting, Thompson brings a subtle vulnerability to the character that is well-portrayed. Colin Farrell is virtually unrecognizable as Travers Goff. Farrell is energetic without his trademark sense of irony or the spark of sadism that makes him such a wonderful actor for portraying unstable characters. In Saving Mr. Banks, Farrell proves himself to be a wonderful actor as he plays a part that could be exceptionally familiar for his known range, but he plays the role without any nods to any prior characters he has played. Tom Hanks brings his natural charisma to the role of Walt Disney and he is instantly likable in the part.

Saving Mr. Banks has a wonderful supporting cast as well. Paul Giamatti, a musical Bradley Whitford, the pairing of B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, and the energetic appearance of Rachel Griffiths midway through the film all enhance an otherwise erratic and often-boring Saving Mr. Banks. The acting is of a wonderfully high caliber.

Unfortunately, the acting does not save the story and make Saving Mr. Banks any more enjoyable to watch.

For other Disney live-action works, please check out my reviews of:
The Lone Ranger
Oz The Great And Powerful
John Carter
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Tron: Legacy
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
Alice In Wonderland
Old Dogs
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl
The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement
The Princess Diaries


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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