Thursday, January 23, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

Walt Disney was easily one of the greatest pop culture innovators of the last century, devoting his entire life to expanding family entertainment and building an empire built on fulfilling the dreams of children.  He was a pioneer in animation, doing more than anybody else to define feature-length animated films, and created a pantheon of beloved cartoon characters who remain icons to this day.  As a filmmaker, he scored a phenomenal fifty-nine Academy Award nominations, with twenty-two wins - two records that might stand for the rest of time.   Furthermore, Disney pretty much invented the concept of the amusement park with Disneyland and later Disneyworld, which remain premier resorts and fabled fantasies of every child's imagination.  The company named for him remains a cultural powerhouse, now owning ABC, ESPN, all of Marvel, the Disney Princesses, Kingdom Hearts, Star Wars, and of course, Mickey Mouse.

Yet for whatever reason, the only thing I ever hear about the man is that he was an anti-semite, and a Nazi collaborator, and a supervillain who froze his brain, and is currently building an army of cyborgs beneath Disneyworld, which will rise out to the surface and conquer the world.  I suspect this is an ironic response to Disney's own intensely cultivated squeaky-clean image.  For years he appeared on American television and in the media as a kindly uncle, a wizard of movie making, with no aspiration other than to make people happy.  Its too funny to imagine him, right after dropping the hokey saint act, lighting up a cigar and making backroom deals just like any other Hollywood scumbag.  As it turns out, Walt Disney did not freeze his head, he was cremated.  He was not an Anti-Semite, at least no more than any other White Protestant American born in 1901.  He never collaborated with the Nazis, he only met Leni Riefenstahl one time because he admired her brilliant directorial eye*.  And his cyborg army project was abandoned in 1958.

"Saving Mr. Banks" is primarily the story of author P. L. Travers, the creator of the Mary Poppins books, negotiating with Walt Disney to make the 1964 musical film, for some reason also called, "Mary Poppins".  You probably know of that movie because everybody on the planet has seen it, or more likely some substitute grammar school teacher played it one day instead of English class because Mrs. Yautz was hung-over and forgot to write a lesson plan.  Tom Hanks' portrayal of Walt Disney is widely regarded as the most impressive part of the movie, earning him his seven-thousandth Oscar Nomination.  Coincidentally, the Disney company made this movie about their founder, using Hanks to once again show his classic squeeky-clean image.  This Disney is a man who just wants to make a fun movie for his daughters, and is also a folksy confessor, rabbi, and psychologist all wrapped into one, digging through P. L. Travers' psychological scars, to ultimately make the classic movie.  The character is almost certainly too idealized, but its better than the Nazi robot master of popular joke.  "Saving Mr. Banks" is halfway fluff, only barely decent, but it seems to have the best intentions, despite some glaring flaws.

Emma Thompson plays Travers, a stuck-up Australian-British lady who hates the idea of giving her characters over to musicians and screenwriters, as the Banks family is a thin metaphor for her own dysfunctional childhood upbringing.  "Saving Mr. Banks" switches back and forth between the early 1960s and P. L. Travers' Outback girlhood, where the germ of her Mary Poppins series was born.  The Mr. Banks of the title refers to the character in the books, played in the old movie by David Tomlinson, who based on Travers' father, played in this newer movie by Colin Farrell.  Because these characters are so important to her, Travers comes to Los Angeles to meet with Disney and his collaborators, ready to hate everything they do.  Honestly, she should consider herself fortune, as Pamela, as Disney likes to call her, in this movie seems to have an unprecedented level of creative control for an author, because she has yet to sign over the rights.  I bet Phillip Pullman had a few complaints back in 2007 when Hollywood was gang-banging his novel, "The Golden Compass", and they probably laughed his concerns off, if they bothered to talk with him at all.

Essentially the first half of the entire movie is a repetitive cycle of Emma Thompsons' character bitching incessantly about every creative decision Disney and his writers make about her book and characters, and being constantly annoyed by the kid-friendly nature of the Disney Empire.  Then after ten minutes, it will flashback to her Australian days, where a younger version of Travers plays with Colin Farrell.  "Saving Mr. Banks" winds up being utterly awful for about two-thirds of its running time, and the flashbacks are most of the problem.  Colin Farrell gives a fine performance, but for whatever reason the director, John Lee Hancock, decided he needed to film the same scene with Farrell and Young Travers about six times.  The movie begins with Dad acting like a charming dreamer full of imagination... then it repeats that same scene constantly.  To the point this stops being charming and becomes idiotic.  I get it, she liked her dad, and he was a man too pure and too fantastic for this mortal coil, can we move on?

The cinematography for these flashbacks are also disturbingly romantic.
On the other side of that hill is Anakin and Padme.

Inevitably, the childhood love story comes to end, as it turns out Mr. Goff (Travers was a pseudonym) is actually a raging alcoholic, and well, you know where this is going.  He's going to lose his job, he's going to become violent around his family, he's going to get consumption, and die, following pretty much exactly the Irish stereotype of the 19th century.  You will have this mapped out well before the movie does, but it still takes an hour and about a dozen flashbacks to get the point across.  There's also a thoroughly bizarre scene involving P. L. saving her mother from drowning herself in a river, which is not very well explained or ever commented upon again.  Obviously most of these flashbacks should have been cut, but they're still essentially to organically explaining the origin of all of Travers' neuroses.  It makes the movie drag, at unfortunately the same time where in the present, Travers herself is acting like an endless bitch.

To be fair, Disney and his crew seem to honestly misunderstand "Mary Poppins", viewing it as a children's movie and nothing else.  But many of Travers complaints have little relation to any reality, such as her sudden demand that the color red never show up in the movie anywhere.  There's the legitimate complaint that "Mary Poppins" is really more about the parents than the kids, then there's being cranky and annoying.  She's even nasty to her studio driver, an incessantly optimistic man played by Paul Giamatti in the best performance of the film.  The songwriters play off the classic standards of the 1964 movie with full energy, and then Emma Thompson has to shoot them down, in the same scene repeated constantly.

So who is going to fix this old woman and her problems?  None other than Walt Disney!  Tom Hanks swoops in and saves her soul, with a merry-go-round ride at Disneyland and sage-like Missouri advice.  Isn't that wonderful?

Disney breaks down Travers' resistance and takes her for a ride.
There might be a sex metaphor in there somewhere.

To be fair, the performances all around are generally excellent, and occasionally perfect.  Emma Thompson is great for the role, but the screenplay makes her unlikable.  Tom Hanks as Disney is fine, but I'm sure if its Oscar-worthy.  Somebody in the grand conspiracy that rules Hollywood has decided that Hanks is overdue for an Academy Award, thus all the buzz around this movie.  I have to again point out Paul Giamatti, who is really the only actor who manages to elevate "Saving Mr. Banks" beyond being merely mediocre.

Weirdly, his lovable driver character only ever interacts with Emma Thompson, so I was hoping that the movie would end on a bizarre twist where Paul Giamatti was really an Angel sent by the Film Gods to lead Travers through her journey.  Then the movie would end with his glasses lying on the pavement, while Walt Disney tries to explain to Travers that he never hired her a driver, and he has never heard of this man.  Or even better, Giamatti is actually the human avatar of Mickey Mouse.  He swipes across his face and reveals he's a giant CG cartoon.  Gosh golly.  Unfortunately no, he's just a normal human, in a normal Oscar-bait movie.  No magic anywhere.

I guess the real question is then:  why did I like "Saving Mr. Banks"?  I seem to be ambivalent towards just about every part of it.  But honestly, the last third is where it really picks up speed, when Emma Thompson can be something more than a stuck-up bitch.  It feels honest and heartfelt when she starts dancing with the songwriters over the final song of the movie, and her character transformation was moving**.  If only we were able to move towards that part of the movie faster, it would have been a better ride.  Ultimately its an okay movie.  Its fluff, but decent enough.  It also let's people know that Mary Poppins was a book series, and not just a movie, which seems to be a completely forgotten element of history.

If you need a movie to take a grandparent to, "Saving Mr. Banks" is perfect.

* Riefenstahl herself was not a Nazi, she only directed "Triumph of the Will", Hitler's greatest propaganda film, and a few others.  Whatever you think about National Socialism, you have to admit that Riefenstahl knew her way around the camera.  Unfortunately due to almost no competition (even today, shockingly), that probably makes her the greatest female director of all time.

** The real P. L. Travers probably was more the bitch than the defrosted artist.  She hated Disney's "Mary Poppins" and refused to let them make another movie.  She was so mad about the songs in the film that she did not let the movie's songwriters work on the stage production.  Travers hated cartoons and demanded that Disney remove the animated penguin sequence, which he added into the film without her permission.  Her personal life was fairly bizarre too.  Apparently she adopted a boy, then raised him, and never bothered to tell him he was actually a twin, which caused no limit of distress when he met himself in a bar at the age of seventeen.  I'll quote Wikipedia for a moment:  "According to her grandchildren, Travers died loving no one and with no one loving her."  Ouch.

No comments:

Post a Comment