Friday, February 28, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

The Academy Awards are just a couple of days away, so I am scrambling to finish this mini Oscar-themed section of reviews before the trophies are handed out on Sunday. Though this particular film was a rather heralded release and poised to be an awards contender in many different categories (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, etc.), it was surprisingly only nominated for Best Original Score at this year's ceremony. Had my wife not already seen this movie, I would have definitely made more of an effort to catch it in regular theaters a lot sooner, but as it was I saw this movie for the first time within the last two weeks.

Based on the true story of Pamela L. Travers, author of "Mary Poppins", Saving Mr. Banks is a dramatization of her negotiation with innovative film-maker Walt Disney over the film adaptation in 1961. On a mission that has lasted nearly twenty years, Walt refuses to let the rights to the popular children's novel slip through his fingers and is pulling out all the stops to court Ms. Travers. Setting her up in a luxury hotel, allowing script approval and even accompanying her to Disneyland, Walt still cannot crack the shell of the stubborn author. However, there is much that remains unseen about P.L. Travers, as events from her past may hold the key to unlocking her childlike optimism and embracing the opportunity to make things right, if only through imagination.

This is kind of a strange product for Disney, as it's a PG-13 film about the creation of one of its most child-friendly properties. Truthfully, I was shocked to see the movie's rating after seeing it, as there was nothing particularly frightening or mature about its content in my mind. Some of the flashback scenes to Travers's past can be slightly unsettling at times, but I've seen far more adult material in many PG movies. Perhaps it managed the PG-13 rating simply to imply a more adult-focused story, as children will probably find little to enjoy in this film.

One of the fascinating parts of this film (and something that I'm naturally predisposed to liking anyway) is the behind-the-scenes look at the screenwriting process of one of the most popular films in Disney's history. Though it might not be entirely factual, the employment of tape recorders at Ms. Travers's behest allows me to be fairly confident that most of what we see in the writer's room is fairly accurate. Here is where Emma Thompson really shines as she portrays a wide array of emotions from stubborn defiance, to cold indifference, to reluctant excitement and finally to fragile vulnerability. It's a great performance, and I'm a little sad to see it be ignored by the academy.

Perhaps the most surprising role in the film was Walt Disney himself, played wonderfully by Tom Hanks in yet another Oscar-snubbed performance. I actually have to confess that the first time I saw that Tom Hanks would be playing the iconic role of Walt Disney, I cynically reduced it to blatant Oscar bait. Even going into the film I had a little of that bias clouding my view, but that quickly went away when Walt was first shown on screen. Hanks has a subtlety to the role that invokes an authenticity to Walt's genuine desire to bring joy to others. His and Thompson's interplay is one of the most entertaining things in Saving Mr. Banks, and for a few moments in the film I actually forgot it was Tom Hanks and not Walt himself.

I've given a lot of compliments to this film, but I have to say that a flaw was pointed out to me that I find myself compelled to mention. Throughout the movie, but especially at the beginning, Ms. Travers repeatedly expresses her deep, emotional connection to the character and her desire to keep her safe from meddling hands. However, as the story progresses (and this may be a slight SPOILER) it becomes clear that her connection isn't with Mary Poppins at all, but rather with the Mr. Banks character. The flashback scenes reveal the personal nature of her book, as it vaguely reflects her own life experiences, particularly with her own father, on whom the Mr. Banks character is loosely based. Mary Poppins herself is really secondary and sort of takes a back seat in a movie that seems like it would feature her more. Having said that, I think the relationship she has with her father is fascinating and that her protectiveness of the Mary Poppins character may simply be her re-write on history where the character succeeds in saving her father.

Sorry to delve into spoilers for a moment, but I couldn't really discuss my biggest (but still not all that big) problem with the film. Overall, Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful story delving into the back-story of a film that I personally didn't realize had the emotional depth that it does. Everything is tied together seamlessly by the fantastic score by Thomas Newman, deservedly nominated for this Sunday's Oscar ceremony (it was also on my top ten list of 2013, where you can find a sample of the score if you're interested). This was a very enjoyable film despite how much it made me want to go to Disneyland, and I give Saving Mr. Banks a solid three and a half stars.

SAVING MR. BANKS is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.