Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Cinema File #294: "Saving Mr. Banks" Review

In terms of modern historical figures without significant biographical movies to their names, its hard to think of someone more interesting and more deserving than Walt Disney. We're talking about a complicated visionary who built a lasting multi-media empire from nothing, an anti-Semite and possible Nazi spy beloved by millions of children, and a man whose head just might be frozen somewhere under Epcot. Is there any story that needs to be told more than his? This missed opportunity is only the first and worst sin of the new sort-of-but-not-really-true-to-life dramedy Saving Mr. Banks, perfectly cast but otherwise willfully ignorant of everything Disney-philes would want to see in a movie featuring old Uncle Walt in any capacity.

Rather than being about the person you're actually interested in, Saving Mr. Banks is actually the story of P.L. Travers, the prim and proper British author of Mary Poppins, whose stubborn refusal to sign away the movie rights leads Disney himself to take a personal hand in wooing her away from her principles. Of course, that analysis is not one you would find in the film, as what plainly comes off as a domineering corporate bully strong arming a woman to compromise her art is presented in just the opposite fashion. As one would expect from a Disney movie, Disney is the hero and P.L. Travers the stuffy antagonist, her attachment to literary integrity merely a mean spirited front disguising every author's secret desire to have their work Disney-fied and sapped of any nuance. As an artist, I'm insulted, but just as a fan of movies, I don't see how they thought this would work?

P.L. Travers is still the main character after all, and in the context of a film that needs her to be the villain, she is made to be so unlikable as to be grating almost every second she is on screen. To the movie's credit, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, as its hard by the end not to side with the affable Disney in his innocent mission to keep a promise to his children in the face of this shrill obstinate harpy, but that doesn't make this approach any less despicable. One might be tempted to give the film a pass considering its made by the company Disney founded and needs to cast him in an impossibly noble light, but that only assumes that its okay for a movie studio to be spineless and self-serving as long as they're making a movie about themselves, which is admittedly a rare situation, but not one that would seem to merit a special exception.

Naturally, proprietary concerns make the kind of Disney biopic I'd want to see, complete with frozen heads and Jew-hating, impossible, but even as the next best thing, Saving Mr. Banks fails to deliver. Not that this was ever designed to be a Walt Disney movie, but every minute Tom Hanks is on screen, you realize why it should have been. Even if P.L. were more likable, her story is still the least interesting one (next to the flashbacks, which I'll get to later), and one wonders if the whole reason they made this film as opposed to a more Walt-centric cradle to grave story might be to avoid the uncomfortable questions that would naturally arise from all the necessary omissions. Hanks is wonderful as Disney, so charming that you almost want to believe the sanitized version on display, but his relatively diminished role in the film is conspicuous and disappointing.

For the record, despite a thankless role, Emma Thompson is as good as always (still pulling for her as the first female Doctor), and all around the cast is better than this movie deserves. Colin Ferrell and Paul Giamatti are the standouts among the supporting cast, the latter providing probably the most heartwarming performance in a largely minor role. Ferrell's drunken patriarch is an odd mix of whimsy and sadness, infusing a running series of flashbacks to Travers' childhood with an increasingly depressing tone that works, but not enough to justify so much time wasted on back story that could have easily been handled in dialogue. The majority of the film outside of Disney's office ends up the same way, good for what it is, but not good enough that I don't still want more Walt.

Last year, the guerrilla-filmed sci-fi noir Escape From Tomorrow received a lot of criticism for its lack of a plot strong enough to live up to its style, a critique I accept even as I defend the film purely for its raw indie chutzpah. The problem in a nutshell was that a story set amid the wide and often weird world of Disney had so much more potential than what was suggested by the film. Saving Mr. Banks falls into a similar trap, flawed though well made and entertaining enough, but ultimately nowhere close to the kind of movie it could have been, and should have been. The factors limiting its potential were less technical and practical than in the case of Escape, but no less daunting, especially given the bigger budget and expectation of mainstream appeal. It may be the best movie we're ever going to get dealing with this subject, but that doesn't make it great in its own right.
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