Saturday Matinee #153: Saving Mr. Banks Film Review (December 4, 2013)
Published December 7, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
This past Wednesday, a few friends and I attended a special screening of Saving Mr. Banks, which makes up the live-action portion of Disney's big holiday theatrical push - the other being the brilliant Frozen. Throughout the film, the audience laughed, they gasped, they cheered. They clapped, they sat in earnest attention. Maybe because I don't go to movies as often as others, but it felt pretty special. Then again, I was among other like-minded Disney fans who already knew what they were getting into. A movie all about the making of Mary Poppins, we thought. Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, we thought. Shameless grab for the Academy Award, we thought. And on paper, Saving Mr. Banks certainly fits the bill as sentimental Oscar bait. It features one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood history, detailing how he made one of the most treasured films in Disney history. But Saving Mr. Banks reveres P.L. Travers more so than it does Walt Disney, which is where the strength of the film lies. And that is why the film has struck a chord with so many - critics and audience alike - and should deservedly win whatever awards are bestowed upon it.
We expect to see Walt the magnificent showman work his magic on a demanding and peculiar woman. Cynics would expect Tom Hanks and director John Lee Hancock to glorify the public image of Walt rather than play to an honest portrayal of the character. Instead, the film belongs to Travers and her legacy; it celebrates not just how she was important in the making of the seminal classic Mary Poppins, but how Mary Poppins - the character - was important to her. The film ultimately shows us there's always hope for redemption. Walt just happens to play a part. That's not to say that Walt wasn't an important part of the making of Mary Poppins. It remains his crowning achievement and enough archival evidence shows how passionate he felt about it. But Saving Mr. Banks does not focus on Walt Disney, nor should it. This is Pamela's story. I'm sorry, it's Mrs. Travers' story.
And we have to remember that. This is a story. The structure of the film helps remind us of that. Although audio transcripts exist from Travers' story meetings with Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers, we can't possibly know the full extent of how everyone felt within that crowded room. Many of these scenes play out more for comedic and dramatic effect rather than a true preservation of history. As a result, they become some of the most intriguing scenes in the film, eschewing a straightforward factual account for a showcase of both the uncertainty in how to deal with such a complicated woman, as well as a loving nod to the genesis of one of Disney's finest films.
Travers herself was never one to stick to the facts, either. Many conflicting accounts have already been logged regarding her version of events versus others' views. One account claims Mary Poppins came to her while she was sick in bed. Another tells us that the idea simply came to her through the window. Saving Mr. Banks includes plenty of obvious comparisons to her aunt Ellie as part of Travers' flashbacks, and thus already continuing the "unreliable narrator" aspect of both the film and Travers herself. But that's part of the film's narrative; it intentionally creates a new "story behind the story," one that draws in an audience wishing to be entertained. I'm not saying the filmmakers should get a free pass; after all, every lie has some basis in some facet of truth. But a complete adherence to the facts of an event does not a good story make. Amusingly, a 2004 documentary for BBC's "The South Bank Show" featured Travers' son Camillus once saying of her, "She used to muddle the whole issue by saying truth is one thing, fact is another thing. Just because it's fiction, doesn't make it a lie."
Those searching for facts within Saving Mr. Banks will not be apt to find much of it; they'd be watching the films for the wrong reasons if they were. There's as much fiction here as there is fact, surely fodder for any diehard Disney anti-fans wishing to find any reason whatsoever to criticize the film (and by extension, the Walt Disney Company). But, as Camillus Travers pointed out, this movie isn't really about fact. It's about the universal truth behind Mary Poppins, behind Pamela Travers, behind all the Mr. Bankses in our lives. The truth becomes most apparent when we are treated to Mrs. Travers's flashbacks to her childhood in Australia. Early on, these feel like interruptions, perfunctory scenes that exist simply to explain why she's such a particularly demanding woman in 1961. But over time, these scenes eventually come together to reveal Travers' own vulnerabilities, as well as Mary Poppins' whole raison d'tre. Mr. Banks becomes a representation of both our achievements and our failures; he stands as the ideal we wish to reach, as well as our inability to cope when we don't. Likewise, we become reminded of what makes Mary Poppins the film resonate with us. Through Saving Mr. Banks, we get a chance to not only re-examine our love or indifference for Mary Poppins the film, but also to better understand the special relationship between a creator and their creation. Between father and daughter. Between mother and child. Between life and death.
The film succeeds in making us question and embrace our Poppins love, though that's not a requirement when watching. I'm obviously speaking from a Poppins-loving bias, but could still see the appeal of the film for those in the audience who haven't been as fortunate as I in Poppinsdom. One of the nicest things I can say about Saving Mr. Banks is that it will deserve every bit of praise it receives, as well as every bit of criticism. That may seem to be a hazy and unfocused assessment, but makes just as much sense as the film itself. Between present-day Los Angeles and flashback Australia, we're treated to two stories, both of which must be told with the other. That special relationship returns, as we see how elements of one story has an adverse effect on the other.
I'm not as familiar with John Lee Hancock's work as I'd like. I have yet to see The Blind Side, or either of his previous two Disney films (2004's The Rookie and the Touchstone-distributed The Alamo) in their entirety. But based on what I've read of the three films, as well as what I've seen of the latter two, I could recognize within Saving Mr. Banks Hancock's fidelity for truthful storytelling. He doesn't shy away from history, but at the same time, recognizes that he's as much a storyteller as he is a documentarian. Thus, while liberties are taken in certain instances, Hancock still has the ability to present them as truthfully as possible.
As a result, Saving Mr. Banks feels more truthful to the spirit of a story rather than give a generic play-by-play of how things happened. After all, Travers' story meetings lasted only six days, after which she gave her approval and signed the papers. Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith play around with that premise by creating a much greater importance to what those six days meant, carefully timing the flashbacks to pack the most punch for both Travers and the audience. For an audience raised on Mary Poppins for fifty years, this dramatization of a week of story meetings becomes both a celebration for a beloved film, as well as an examination of why we love it. I can easily recall at least three instances in the film where I cried, not just because of the effect of that scene within the film, but because of how that scene resonated with its actual Mary Poppins counterpart. And that, in turn, brought a flurry of emotions to me, as Mary Poppins has been a regular part of my Disney life since I was three years old.
Part of that effect can easily be traced to Emma Thompson, whose portrayal of P.L. Travers is remarkably low-key. She could have easily embraced an over-the-top approach to a remarkably difficult woman. But instead, she found that perfect balance between unreasonable and piteous. We laughed at some of her erratic behavior, but held back tears when we realized the why-for of it within the context of the film. Much of the success in Travers' story arc can be attributed to the richness that Thompson brings to the role. She doesn't try to fully become Travers, but she doesn't go out of her way to caricature her either. It's a refreshing and different take when compared to other "biopic" acting I've seen in other (lesser) films.
The one portrayal most will wonder about is Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Truthfully, almost regretfully, I couldn't buy into it until the end. Maybe because I grew up watching Hanks everywhere, from Big to Sleepless in Seattle to Forrest Gump. To me, he was forever Woody. He was Captain Jim Lovell. He was Jimmy Dugan. It was too much for him to ask me to believe he was Walt Disney. In fact, the film makes sure to let us know this isn't the "real" Walt Disney. That's to say, he's still based on truth, but that depends on which version of the truth you believe. Our first viewing of Hanks as Walt is not "in person," but on the television. And that sets up the rest of Walt's arc in the film. Initially for Travers, he's just some character on television, not a real person like her. And slowly, that pre-conceived notion gets chipped away for both Travers and the audience.
For me, it didn't occur until very late into the film. Sometimes actors surprise me. They'll do the littlest thing, and suddenly, transform. It was that moment when I saw Hanks as Walt at the Mary Poppins premiere (come on, that's not a spoiler). He's just standing there, just taking it all in, relishing the limelight, but still being somewhat bewildered by it. Hanks was playing Walt as I had come to know him: that everyman in all of us, still confused by the idea of fame, but riding the wave anyway. He could take it all in stride and nobody knew just how many nerves were setting him on end. That was Walt. And for a brief moment, seeing Hanks playing out a strange uneasiness as he schmoozed with a radio interviewer, I saw Walt.
Ultimately, Saving Mr. Banks will elicit a lot of strong responses from a wide array of viewers. For those looking to criticize for the sake of historical accuracy, I fear they've watched (and, by extension, criticized) the film for the wrong reasons. Granted, there is no "right" reason to watch a film, just as there is no "right" reason to make one, either. We are here to see a story play out. To laugh, to cry, to wait. Saving Mr. Banks gives us perfectly good reasons for all three.