AFI Fest Review: Saving Mr. Banks, by Scott Nye
I’m a fairly sentimental man by nature, and as such, given to displays of sentimentality in the movies. Because the feeling comes so naturally outside of the cinema, its representation therein can be equally honest. I don’t mind admitting it. Whether that makes me a “sap” or “soft” or just a damn fool is up to you. What I can tell you is I liked Saving Mr. Banks, the story of how a man whose name became a corporation gradually cajoled an author to allow him to commercialize her intensely personal novel, a great deal. Yes, the real P.L. Travers, author of the series of Mary Poppins novels, disapproved of the film immensely, regretting ever allowing Disney near the thing, and this is eventually discarded in the film we now have before us. But just as Disney had its way with her novel, so too can they now have their way with history, and though the result may not be more layered and nuanced than the true affair, I daresay that its essential goal – to uplift, inspire, and celebrate the magically ridiculous machinery of Hollywood – was, at least for this viewer, entirely successful.
I lined up with the rest of the insane moviegoing posse, Los Angeles division, a full two hours before the film was set to start (and well over two hours before it ended up starting) with very little expectation of eventual entry, but the festival was kind (and smart) enough to open up two overflow theaters to contain the mob, and I got a plum spot in one of them. So, sure, I wasn’t able to see Tom Hanks or Emma Thompson introduce the film in the newly-renovated Chinese Theatre, but in the great decision between a shoddy seat at the better theater and a prime seat at the not-too-shoddy-itself theater, I’d say I did all right. That the crowd greeted the film with no sign of diminished excitement certainly kept the positive vibes rolling.
And this is an audience picture, through and through, as much as – if not more than – any summer blockbuster. In my piece last year on so-called “Oscar bait,” I mentioned that there is no shame – and even tremendous value – in knowing precisely how to manipulate an audience; the fact that I know exactly what the filmmakers were trying to get from me in each and every moment of this film in no way detracted from it getting precisely that desired result. I rarely cry at the movies (it’s not a macho thing; I just don’t), but I’ll freely say that things got a little misty at times. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay smartly builds to these moments with sharp, well-observed dialogue that quickly defines, or at least sketches, all of the major players, so that, in tandem with an exceptional ensemble (besides Thompson and Hanks, it features Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, and Colin Farrell), we understand the essence of these people almost immediately. In what they will eventually delight becomes evident straight away; we understand what to celebrate almost reflexively.
It’s almost a given that Thompson would excel in the role of a proper English lady (or so she presents herself to be) determined to sabotage the Mary Poppins film simply by demanding too much of it, but, by tapping into the sort of arrested adolescence Travers is able to enjoy as a function of her profession, she finds the kernel of truth amongst all the fretting. The tantrums she throws amongst the Disney creatives are as much an author keeping a stranglehold on her work as a child wanting to have things purely her own way, unable to see the perspective of another. One lovely scene, in which she builds a gazebo from some stray leaves and branches in the middle of the Disney lot, is presented with just the right balance of curiosity, sympathy, and pity. Travers may be the film’s protagonist, but unlike those of so many modern Hollywood pictures, she is not treated with kids’ gloves for it.
Hanks, as Disney, is similarly inspired. Like every last soul in America, Hanks has given me countless hours of enjoyment, and I hope you will believe me when I say that I take nothing away from the man when I say that I see him first and foremost in every role, not the character. “Oh, this year Tom Hanks is on a boat.” “Oh, this year he’s running a bookstore.” “Hey, look, Tom Hanks is managing a rock n’ roll band!” And so forth. His screen persona is so sharp and malleable that it needn’t be adorned with actorly tricks as a means of convincing us of his talent. His talent is self-evident. Nevertheless, perhaps by playing a man whose stature exceeds his own, I saw Walt – as the character prefers to be called – much more than I saw Hanks. The latter captures the spirit that drove the company in those days, a boundless mixture of great joy at the fact of his business mixed with an exceptional mind for commercial entertainment.
I have little knowledge of Disney as a person, but it should come as no surprise that the corporation dependent on his legacy should seek to sand off some of his rougher edges, and there’s little reason to fault them when, again, the spirit of the industry portrayed so lovingly. The film does manage to sneak in some such moments, as when Walt, rather than take the time to give anyone an autograph, simply hands out countless pre-signed (perhaps even faked) portraits, or late in the film when he’s decided it more commercially advantageous to distance himself from Travers. In fact, their whole relationship is a wonderful mix of genuine professional respect (at least on his end) with purely mercenary tactics – for all of Walt’s professed adoration for Travers’s creation, his personal esteem for her starts and stops with the contract on which she is forever delaying her signature.
At its heart, Saving Mr. Banks is about the preciousness of an idea, and the dedication to doing a work of art justice. The Disney team and Travers might have had differing opinions on what direction that should take, but watching them hash through the various alternatives, making passionate arguments for very small details, is a beautiful expression of everything we’ve come here to watch. Sure, it might be a little self-congratulatory, even self-promotive, but that doesn’t make it dishonest, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t celebrating an endeavor that many of us love, too. It’s not just Mary Poppins itself; I haven’t seen the film since I was a child, and my personal feelings towards it are basically nonexistent. I’m talking about show business, about cinema, about constructing something entirely fake and making the essential feeling real. That’s what Saving Mr. Banks is about.