DIR: John Lee Hancock • WRI: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith • PRO: Alison Owen, Ian Collie, Philip Steuer • DOP: John Schwartzman • ED: Mark Livolsi • MUS: Thomas Newman •CAST: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell
Saving Mr Banks tells the story of how the very uptight author Mrs. P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was persuaded by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to allow him to adapt her most famous work, Mary Poppins, to the big screen. The film centres on the seemingly irreconcilable culture clash between the pernickety British-Australian author and the gosh-darnit informality and enthusiasm of her American wooer. Travers despises vulgarity, which, for her, might neatly be summed up as everything that Disney produces. As the insistently “Mrs.” Travers shoots down the reasonable suggestions of Disney’s long-suffering writer and composers, we discover that many of the details she cherishes in Mary Poppins resonate with her own experience growing up with her loving, but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) in Allora, a remote town in Australia. The Disney Machine circa 2013 gets under our skin and cranks up the lump-in-the-throat factor to show how 1960s Disney got beneath Travers’ hard exterior and cranked up the lump-in-the-throat factor to win her over. The seduction of Travers makes us conscious of how we too are being seduced. It is our inescapable awareness of the calculation behind this effort to win her—and us—over that robs the film of the poignancy it longs to evoke with its flashbacks to Travers’ childhood.
Thankfully the lighter aspects of the story win out, because the grittier aspects of reality on show—Farrell’s alcoholism and Travers’ loneliness—are so filtered through coats of movie gloss as to feel quite unreal. The film stays afloat on deft performances from Thompson, Giamatti and especially Hanks, whose avuncular Disney blots out some of the more recent and less pleasant revelations about the real man behind the House of Mouse.
It’s nice to see the official Disney logo on an original drama, but it’s a shame that its backwards-harking vision—nostalgically mining Disney’s own filmography—makes it a piece of Disney’s larger project of looking the past to come up with material to fuel its dream factory today. Whether it is the purchase of Lucasfilm, the sequel (and prequel)-isation of Pixar’s earliest and best work or the Disney Infinity “multi-platform experience,” the world’s most successful film studio is no longer venturing outward in search of material, but rather has turned entirely inward, and is fracking its own landscape of licenses to generate “content.” It would be sad if this nostalgic strategy were to someday throw up a Saving Mr Hanks and the serpent choked a little harder on its own tail.
PG (See IFCO for details)
Saving Mr Banks is released on 29th November 2013