Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Saving Mr. Banks" Gets The Disney Treatment, For Good and Bad

Banks shows a P.L. Travers who warms to the Disney way.
Saving Mr. Banks is about the making of Mary Poppins, and taken on its own terms, it’s an enjoyable crowd-pleaser with a multitude of fine performances that, if nothing else, made me want to revisit the classic Disney film.

However, at the same time, it’s also a candy-coated fabrication, and it really rubbed me the wrong way how it turns P.L. Travers’ (Emma Thompson) justified concerns over Hollywood ransacking and her understandable desires to maintain artistic integrity into nothing more than daddy issues that the sweet-natured Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) needed to massage and overcome.

I have no reason to doubt Travers was a difficult, nitpicky woman, but the movie makes her story into a “Taming of the Shrew” tale that seems largely biased and unfair. The driving thrust of the movie concerns whether or not Disney and the brain trust behind the film adaptation can convince Travers to sign over the rights of the film, but in reality she already had signed the rights over out of financial necessity. A trip to California did occur, and, I can imagine Disney tried to allure her into seeing his way so that he might get the rights to her other books. However, scenes depicting her succumbing to the charms of Disney Land, connecting with Disney over shared childhood troubles and enjoying the film at the premier are totally made up.

Generally, I don’t have a problem with films bending the facts or making major changes if necessary (American Hustle recently did this, and, as my review indicates, I unblinkingly loved the film). I'm usually a firm believer in not letting the truth get in the way of good drama, and that’s especially true if embellishments give actors good beats to play, as the trip to London affords Hanks. However, this film clearly implies that it is a good thing to allow a giant corporation to pillage one’s art, and that’s an unsettling takeaway for me.

The film spends a lot of time on Travers' tough childhood.
To be fair, the throughline about fathers and how we want to remember them is a poignant one, and it certainly hits on a recognizable and interesting nerve. But the way it's delivered diminishes Travers as a character. In the film, Disney assuages Travers not by compromising on her understandable concerns about fake sentimentality, animation or the casting of Dick Van Dyke, but by promising to save Mr. Banks. Her qualms are only an extension of her icy exterior, and the good heart thawing by Disney has made them moot.

All of this makes for a meta viewing experience. The film Disney produces is a loose adaptation of Travers’ book, one that includes all the basic elements but also adds various spoonfuls of sugar to make it all play better. The end result may be a bit artificial, but it does make the father figure look good.

The exact same comments could be made about Saving Mr. Banks itself. Most of the basic elements are here, with certain things artificially livened up and/or sanded down to make it all go down easier, but, most importantly, it makes Walt Disney look good.

Considering all of this, one could easily make the case that the film was a giant work of propaganda with the following goals:
1) Make sure Walt Disney comes across well. 
2) Convey that the corporation know best when it comes to artistic direction (That's especially interesting on the heels of the whole disaster that went down with the making of Brave, which I reviewed last year). 
3)  Make people feel nostalgia over Mary Poppins, particularly in light of the fact that we just released a 50th Anniversary Edition Blue Ray. In stores everywhere!
Hanks is great as Disney, but the film does a lot of myth making.
It’s really personal opinion on whether or not you take issue with any of that. I find some of it problematic, but, honestly, I’m more annoyed that the sugarcoating results in a missed opportunity. Midway through the film, Disney indicates he understands Travers' protectiveness because he had a similar experience with Mickey Mouse, and that scene hints at what this film could’ve been.

The real Disney got to maintain his artistic license, while Travers did not. Instead, Disney steamrolled her vision, basically because he thought he knew best. History has shown his inclinations were smart ones, and I think a more interesting movie would've explored this dichotomy more fully (the film’s excellent poster pointed to it).

There are shades of gray to the making of Mary Poppins and fascinating complexity to the two pivotal people involved, but Saving Mr. Banks is more interested in showcasing a sugary confection. That’s not a big surprise, and in fact, it echoes what happened with the original film, calling to mind a line included in both: Can't put my finger on what lies in store, but I feel what's to happen all happened before. B