Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
As P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, Emma Thompson projects a grave sort of loneliness. Nested confidently into middle age, yet still grappling with the issues of her childhood, the Travers of “Saving Mr. Banks” uses her literary creation as a bulwark. Fans and business associates she treats as challengers. Travers won’t allow their meddling to threaten the autocracy of her imagination.
The movie, which is an account of Travers’ dealings with Walt Disney in bringing Poppins to the screen, begins as an engaging fish out water story in which the prim, very English-seeming Travers bumps up against the cheery crassness of Los Angeles. And for a while it’s fun to watch this lonely-bird outsider take roost in the studio system of old Hollywood. She brings dryness and formality to the Disney backlot, where everyone is on a first-name basis and no one ever imagines that commerce and merchandising aren’t the natural handmaidens of creativity. The scenes showing Travers, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and songsmiths Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) pounding “Poppins” into shape are among the movie’s most effective. They highlight the collaborative nature of movie making, and with their buoyant stop-start tempo and intermittent bubblings of song they remind you what movies have lost as they’ve become removed from the heritage of the musical.
If only the makers of “Saving Mr. Banks” had done as thorough a job of pounding their own movie into shape. Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith have yoked the picture to a flashback gimmick that grows more tiresome as the picture goes along. Through these interludes, which reveal Travers’ childhood in Australia, we’re meant to understand that the author’s attachment to Mary Poppins stems from her unresolved issues concerning her father, a drunk daydreamer portrayed by Collin Farrell. Farrell has the right look for the part – the father is an Irish lothario – but none of the slyness or seductiveness needed to make this man’s failures seem compelling or tragic. He’s too much a lad, too little a rogue, and it doesn’t take long for the character to become a sort of morass, sucking the picture down as a pit of quicksand might an intrepid jungle explorer. The Australian bits might have worked had they provided a sense of the young Travers’ inner life. But the girl’s experiences — and more importantly her perceptions — lack the specificity and narrative progression needed to raise them above the role of dressing for the father’s failings. Many scenes show a photogenic girl (Annie Rose Buckley) watching mutely as Farrell behaves like a goofball. It’s easy to assume what she’s feeling, but those assumptions are fed to us — like notations scribbled over the characters’ heads. What’s needed is a context that’s rich and detailed enough to allow us to feel we’re developing our own insights regarding the connections between this child and the older Travers. I don’t think it’s there.
The Australian scenes do succeed in one sense: They link the Outback of the ‘20s to the movie’s L.A. It’s the L.A. of our collective memory, as the movie’s Australia is the Australia of Travers’ memories, and their similarities give the picture a neat visual-emotional framework. Both are marked by a sunshine that’s almost obscene in its cleanliness and towering palms so photogenic they’re like splinters of ready-made movie scenery. Of course, these locales are dreamscapes, as phony as they are familiar. And we understand that the adult Travers, relaxed by the balm of Hollywood, risks succumbing to California as she has to the landscape of her childhood imagination. Director John Lee Hancock, whose previous film was the flyover fable “The Blind Side,” devotes his warm and impersonal touch to drawing out these congruities, and his handling is deft enough to be lulling. (By the time I’d formulated some objections to the movie I’d already begun to enjoy it.) Hancock knows he’s making a movie about imagination and role-play: He gives his images a burnish and flow that sometimes evokes a reverie.
Our self-images – and the effort we put into creating and maintaining them – are the stealth subjects of “Mr. Banks.” If Travers is an Australian posing as a representative of high Englishness, her rival, Walt Disney, is a goofy Midwesterner remade as America’s dream merchant. Artistically, both are projecting their predilections for self-invention, and it’s fun watching this pair of archfantasists cross visions. Disney is stimulated by Travers’ obstinacy (she bans the color red from the film), she’s disarmed by his American love of informality (which is really its own form of stubbornness). In a sense they’re co-directors jostling for control of the picture — and they’re both deadly serious about their crafts. There’s a great moment in which Travers calls Disney’s cartoons “silly,” and a chill descends upon his face, as though she’d just stabbed one of his children.
Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Disney has sly minatory undertones. He makes you sense the cutthroat businessman behind the façade of wholesomeness. Possibly, it takes a figure of Hanks’ magnitude to pull off a Great Man acting job, because the audience won’t accept a mere mimic in the role of a titan. (This is what’s missing in most portrayals of Orson Welles. The actors may physically resemble Welles, sort of, but they have none of his metaphysical size.) Wisely, Hanks allows our familiarity with his movie-star persona to transfer onto our image of Disney, and this lends the performance a heft commensurate with the mogul’s eminence. I enjoyed watching Hanks’ Uncle Walt even as I couldn’t help comparing him to one of those robot presidents that occupy the theme parks of the Disney empire.
Most of what I’ve picked out of “Saving Mr. Banks” takes place below the surface. It’s not overt. What is overt is close to ruinous. In order to lend catharsis to the material Marcel and Smith make Travers’ daddy issues a central concern of the script. “Mary Poppins,” they’d like us to believe, is about fathers and their difficulties communicating with their children, and they have Disney and Travers bond over their shared feelings of paternal mortification. In my experience that’s not how most people think of “Mary Poppins,” and it’s no surprise that Hancock and his team struggle mightily to make their reading stick in your consciousness. It doesn’t work. It’s just about impossible to make a connection between Farrell’s drunkard and David Tomlinson, the mustachioed man-moppet who plays the father in the Disney film. And when Travers and Disney engage in a sobbing powwow on the topic of their childhoods, it feels as though the filmmakers are stuffing your throat with a dose of medicine that not even a spoonful of sugar can make tolerable. Two days after I’d watched the movie a friend I’d seen it with excitedly informed me that she’d figured out the title. “Mr. Banks,” she said, “is the name of the father in ‘Mary Poppins’!” (Need I point out how dreadful the title is?) “But,” she continued disappointedly, “I don’t understand how he was saved.”
Moments like the aforementioned powwow and a scene in which Travers sleeps with a giant Mickey Mouse that she’d earlier exiled from her presence in disgust seem to derive from nothing but the screenplay’s own inertia. They’re like the flashbacks of Travers’ youth: disconnected and meaningless aside from what they spell out in big block letters. It’s never made clear what beyond the prospect of a pay-out makes Travers warm to Disney’s methods (the real Travers seems to have resented them until her death) or why the daft notion of rescuing her father should cause her to overrule her objections and sign away the rights to her character. (She couldn’t rescue daddy through one of her books?) Walt Disney Pictures, of course, has a financial interest in the film, and that surely accounts for some of these disconnects, as well as the whiff of propaganda that occasionally wafts through “Mr. Banks.” (A brief visit to Disneyland has no narrative purpose.) But how to account for Paul Giamatti’s platitudinous chauffeur? He seems to exists to deliver aphorisms. The best of them: “You can’t worry about the future, only today.” It’s no “hakuna matata.”
- The Dennis Potter-scripted “Dreamchild,” which I think is one of the better movies of the ’80s, shares many themes and elements with “Saving Mr. Banks.” You can buy it on DVD here.