Thursday, January 9, 2014

Jimbo Goes to the Movies: “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013) Review

It may not be the most accurate biopic of the year, but there’s no denying the intrinsic charm of this ode to Hollywood’s Silver Screen Era

In today’s completely unpredictable, highly unstable world, there’s not a whole lot we can count on. One of the few things that is consistent (along with the sun eventually rising and whatever Harmony Korine releasing being pretty damn amazing) however, is Tom Hanks’ acting performances, and in “Saving Mr. Banks” -- a less-saccharine-than-you-would-probably-think-quasi-biopic -- Hooch’s co-star is yet again in full Oscar bait mode. Indeed, the whole of the movie is quite enjoyable and entertaining, and while probably not the best Hollywood production of the year, there is no denying the movie’s outright qualities.

I’ve never seen “Mary Poppins,” nor have I read the P.L Travers series of novels of which the film is based. I am, however, quite aware of Miss Travers genuine distaste for the adaptation, as well as her super-authoritarian involvement (or meddling, depending on your perspective) with the film’s production -- which, as it turns out, is kinda’ some bullshit, since the publishing company behind Mary Poppins had ALREADY signed away the rights of the book before Travers met with Disney execs in the early 1960s. While the film is likely more historical fantasy than fiction, it at least does an adequate job of somewhat framing the conditions behind Disney’s “Mary Poppins” -- it may not be 100 percent accurate in the slightest, but it at least gets half of the story right without flights of fancy or flat out fabrications. But, uh, more on the stuff the producers of this film made up a little later on.

The plot for the movie is very simplistic. Emma Thompson, rocking a brown bowl of popcorn on her head and passing it off as a hairdo, plays P.L. Travers, famed British fiction author by means of Australia. The movie begins with her arriving in Los Angeles, and ridiculing an overly cheery chauffer (played by Pig Vomit from “Private Parts") and being completely aghast at all of the Disney merchandise left around her comped Beverly Hills hotel room. For some reason, she really doesn’t like pears in her fruit bowl, which kicks off the first of many childhood memories from the Outback.

I’ve never read any extensive material on Travers, so I can’t say whether or not her childhood greatly influenced her most popular work. The producers of “Saving Mr. Banks,” however, make it an effort to explicitly spell out that her experiences in Australia -- mostly, involving her alcoholic father -- completely served as the inspiration for “Mary Poppins,” with her dad standing in as the eponymous Mr. Banks. Indeed, one of the biggest bones of contention she seemed to have with the proposed adaptation regarded the demeanor of that particular character within the film -- she wanted him to be depicted as more human, and less miserly, which (according to this film anyway) led directly to the creation of the iconic “Let's Go Fly a Kite” number. Which brings us to our  required daily useless trivia note: ever the fan of prim, proper and horribly literal British-English, Travers desperately vouched to have the number re-titled "Let's Go And Fly a Kite" instead.

And so, Travers hangs out with the screenwriters for the Disney film, and right off the bat, she starts chiding the script, demanding incredibly focused changes that downplay the American-ism of the overall story. She really hates the fact that they want Dick Van Dyke to play Mr. Banks, and she has an instant abhorrence for the musical interludes and ANY semblances of animation throughout the proposed film. She refuses to even talk to the Sherman Brothers or Don DaGradi without a tape recorder in the room, and starts making some REALLY stringent demands -- for example, she absolutely forbids the color red from showing up in the picture. Now, was it because her daddy had TB, or she just wanted to make life miserable for the scriptwriting crew? Admirably, the plot for “Saving Mr. Banks” keeps it fairly objective, although some flashbacks involving Traver’s pa -- a bank-owning drunkard played by Colin Firth, who has a bad habit of passing out at county fairs -- really want to steer your towards the “childhood influence” perspective.

Seeing as how the Disney folks (which includes that one chick from the Target “notebooks and jeans” commercial) can’t grab a handle on Travers, in comes Walt himself, as embodied by Mr. Thomas Hanks. With his pencil-thin mustache and historically inaccurate lack of smoking (at one point, the script even makes something of a self-aware joke about not depicting any cigarettes onscreen), Hanks totally owns the movie, serving as the folksy, hyper-America counterbalance to Thompson’s hoity-toity Anglicanism. Really, the film is about the unwanted merger of the old (as represented by the U.K, and in many ways, literature as an art form) with the new (as represented by the U.S. and the format of film) because of mass consumer economics (and if there’s a bigger complex out there demonstrating such than today’s monolithic Disney corporation, I have yet to encounter it.) If Travers represents prideful artistic individualism, and Disney represents ultra-capitalistic, entrepreneurial individualism, then perhaps there’s some true socioeconomic subtext going on here that belies the obvious?

In short, the film is pretty much a cat-and-mouse game, with Travers making demands, and Disney making counter-demands and offers. Every now and then, a Disney suit will say something about the movie, and that triggers another childhood memory for Travers. The heavily implied subtext herein is that Poppins was based on her father’s deathbed caretaker, and that the entire veiled symbolism of the book series was about saving a chronically ill patriarch. And also, at some point, her mom tried to drown herself in a lake, and the whole reason she doesn’t like pears is because that’s what she was picking when Daddy Travers passed away. Now, splice that narrative with a narrative about Tom Hanks doing his gosh-darndest to woo P.L (complete with a sequence in which he bribes her with a personal tour of Disneyland), and that’s the flick, in a nutshell.

Considering the source material, you’d think the movie would be fluffier than a cotton candy-stuffed pillow, but it’s actually a bit more nuanced than perhaps it appears. The acting duel between Hanks and Thompson really makes the movie work, and the supporting cast, as a whole, does a pretty good job of holding up the scenery. The flashback stuff was a little forced, and some of the “liberties” taken with the source material is a bit schmaltzy (take, for instance, the scene where Walt Disney personally flies to London, to tell Travers about the symbolic value of her books), but as a whole, it’s not a terribly sunny film at all. Yes, it has that somewhat cloying “Disney glow” to it (inescapable, I know) but it’s just so well-acted and fluidly paced that you can’t help but be swept along from beginning to end. Hanks and Thompson are likely to get some Oscar nods for this one, but as good as the picture was, I’m not entirely sure this one is Academy Awards bound -- but of course, being a glorious paean to one of Hollywood’s unquestionable titans, it might just get there, any way.

So, all in all? It’s a film that’s not exactly reliable as a historical text (imagine that), but it is a very fun, engaging motion picture, with a very tight script and some very solid acting. It may not be one of the year’s absolute best, but “Saving Mr. Banks” is definitely one of the better mainstream Hollywood releases to hit Multiplexes in 2013.

My Score:

Three and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four

1 comment:

  1. There were many times this movie could have easily been sappy and manipulative, but it took the high-road. Eventually though, it got me tearing-up, as much as I hate to admit it. Good review Jimbo.