AFI 2013 Review: Saving Mr. Banks
Just the title Saving Mr. Banks gives me so many non sequitur ideas, I have to get them all out of my system before I can even address the movie, which opened AFI Fest. Yes, Tom Hanks did two Saving movies. I assume this is a trilogy with Saving Private Ryan, Saving Silverman and Saving Mr. Banks. Hanks wasn’t available for Silverman because he was losing weight for Cast Away so they got Jack Black instead. Because of Hanks’ “SNL” skit I thought of Saving Mr. Belvedere, in which Hanks would travel back in time to save Broctune from cancelation. Or Saving Mr. Banksy in which Hanks teaches us all the wonder and whimsy of street art. Whew, okay then.
Hanks plays Walt Disney himself, a supporting character in the story of the making of Mary Poppins. Author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is dead set against turning her book into a film and Disney seems flustered that she’s immune to his charms. She reluctantly goes along with developing the movie with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and musicians Bob (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman).
At its best, Saving Mr. Banks is a fascinating comedy about dealing with difficult personalities in an artistic process. Disney’s own "Entourage" if you will. Travers gives an indignant answer to everything. Her big things are she’s against animation, and resistant to the musical, but she doesn’t like their made up words either. An effective sequence involves her reaction to the Sherman’s invention of “responstible” and their notes on Mary Poppins’ most famous word.
It’s a give and take, which we know has a happy ending. Let Travers have the mom’s name because it really doesn’t matter what she’s called, then they can leverage her on something that actually matters to Mary Poppins. Travers requires a lot of patience, because just getting through a script reading involves her feedback on scene headings which will never be seen by an audience.
Bob Sherman represents our voice in all this. We know she’s a little too precious and not really giving fellow artists the respect of hearing them out, but if Bob speaks up against her he’ll blow it. Some of these arguments seem contrived for the screenplay’s sake. For example, was Richard Sherman not briefed on Travers’ aversion to animation? One would think in such a high maintenance situation, the three hands on people in the room would be given specific instructions for massaging the talent.
Where Saving Mr. Banks feels phony is that it’s very clearly still the story of a shrew who learns to warm her heart at the pre-orchestrated moments in the script. That’s possibly sexist too, unless it’s just anti-British in general regardless of her gender. Either way, it’s contrived. She eventually warms up to the musicians’ interpretation of her book, but then has a setback. Now how will they ever get this movie made? Even that might be cute, taking a familiar structure and setting it against real life showbiz history.
The thing is, this is also a biography of P.L. Travers, so her shenanigans in Hollywood are intercut with flashbacks to her childhood. Her father (Colin Farrell) was a carefree drunk who made her mother (Ruth Wilson) the bad guy for trying to hold the family together responsibly. It informs why Travers grew to oppose the sort of whimsy she saw in her father, but it is also offensively obvious.
You can tell from the moment Travers checks into her hotel and gets rid of the pears in her fruit basket, the pears are going to pay off later. And boy, oh boy, do they ever explain why she hates pears. It may be a very true story of a very tragic childhood, but it is positioned in the most manipulative fashion. Foreshadowing may be a valid narrative device, but we are talking about bad foreshadowing. It’s so blatant.
By the way, thanks for explaining how Mary Poppins relates to her actual childhood, which we’ve been watching for half of the past two hours. Also, thanks for explaining exactly who is being saved. It was too subtle when Travers said Mary Poppins wasn’t saving the children. If it weren’t the title of the movie, simple process of elimination would have told us who Travers felt was being saved, but just to be safe it’s a good thing Hanks was there to deliver the film’s message.
It’s kind of cool to see the Disney studio lot actually used to represent the Disney studio lot. I’m used to seeing it on TV shows like “Alias” as some covert meeting place. I really liked hearing the demo versions of Mary Poppins songs on a simple piano. They should release a soundtrack of Schwartzman and Novak doing all the songs.
I think I’d rather see any of my joke premises from the intro than the actual Saving Mr. Banks, although that’s easy to say when I can get a laugh out of a logline and no one ever has to come up with an actual script. So I give Saving Mr. Banks credit for being an actual movie whereas other ideas are not actual movies. Yet. Seriously, you can have my Mr. Belvedere idea for free if you actually make that movie. Saving Mr. Banks is a decent inside Hollywood story and a very, very bad biography of an artist.