GREAT FILMS: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr. Banks (Australia/ UK/ USA, 2013)
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell

The phrase "feel-good film" is one that can often send so-called proper film fans running for the hills. For people of a certain age or disposition, "feel-good films" are lazy, mawkish, openly manipulative efforts which prize enjoyment and entertainment so highly that they make no effort at any deeper message. They are films for people who don't really like films, a sort of false safe haven for people who can no longer handle the complexities of real life and the cinema that often brutally captures it.
This point of view is of course heavily flawed, being rooted in an adolescent form of snobbery and an equally adolescent notion that lighter stories with happier endings are always inferior to darker films in which everybody dies at the end. I speak as someone who was once part of this mindset, deliberately dismissing and eschewing what I perceived as the lazy mainstream in favour of films which were often darker but not necessarily better. While I still love dark, weighty stories, I'm very glad that I have grown out of this mentality. Had I not, I would have passed on Saving Mr. Banks, one of my favourite films of 2013.
On paper, you'd have a lot of reasons for dismissing Saving Mr. Banks, or at least for believing that it would fall into the same old traps of many a Hollywood biopic. John Lee Hancock has pandered to sentimentality throughout his career, from his debut Hard Time Romance through his sports film The Rookie and most recently his Oscar-winning The Blind Side. It's tempting to view the project as an advert for the Disney Company, or a glorified niche project which will only please fans of Mary Poppins (though that's hardly a niche market).
But for all one's stubbornness, there's little denying the power of Saving Mr. Banks, and not just on an emotional level. Yes, the film is light-hearted, sentimental and things do end on a reasonably happy note, but it's also a very well-structured, tightly-paced piece of comedy-drama which knows when to power on with the plot and when to give its characters and audience emotional space. While many biopics feel baggy and self-important, this one fizzes and crackles with the feeling that everyone involved is passionate about the story and having enormous fun in telling it.
Hancock is particularly adept in combining the present-day scenes of P. L. Travers' fraught discussions with Walt Disney and the flashbacks to her childhood in Australia. This is often the moment where things can fall apart, with the flashbacks being too blatant or the present-day action actually becoming less weighted, as was the case in Sarah's Key. But Hancock judges things very nicely, never letting his editing decisions be too obvious as he switches between the stories.
On its simplest level, Saving Mr. Banks is a very loving portrait of 1960s Disney. I use the word 'loving' rather than 'hagiographic', since this is not a film which entirely glorifies or glamourises who Walt Disney was or the way he ran his business. Tom Hanks plays Disney as warm, affable and charming, but he also has a ruthless quality to him. Even if it's dressed up in language about promises to his children and the most magical place on earth, he is just as determined to get his way as Travers is: she just doesn't feel the need to hide it or tone down her opinions.
Rather, the film is 'loving' insofar in that it points out many of the positive aspects of Disney's way of working. We think of Disney nowadays as a corporate monolith churning out formulaic stories, but here we see a willingness to experiment, particularly in the wonderful music of Dick and Bob Sherman. There is a similar willingness to replicate details of Travers' books wherever possible, contrary to the image we often have of Disney running roughshod over the source.
Hancock doesn't show us much actual footage from Mary Poppins, but he does weave in little nods towards it throughout. During the first performance of 'Let's Go Fly A Kite', Travers begins tapping her foot to the music, with the same movements that Julie Andrews' feet made during the 'Step In Time' sequence in the film itself. Even if these scenes aren't entirely accurate, it's refreshing to see a more even-handed depiction of Disney, which raises many familiar criticisms but doesn't let them overtake the story.
The film also works purely and simply as a comedy. Its action is no different in one respect to The Odd Couple, anchored as it is by two very different characters who are forced to share a confined space. Disney is the more relaxed, Walter Matthau figure, who wants room for fun and a little indulgence, while Travers is like Jack Lemmon's character: crochety, stubborn, set in her ways and threatened by even the smallest deviation from what she knows. Emma Thompson has always had terrific comic timing, and her performance here is every bit as brilliant as her turn as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing some 20 years ago.
But beyond all its affection and wit, Saving Mr. Banks is actually a fascinating look at the art of adaptation. The clash between Travers and Disney is not just a clash between backgrounds, mindsets or creative sensibilities: it is a personification of the differences in storytelling between literature and film. Both parties want the best for the story and characters, but at the outset they cannot speak the same language. As with Adaptation, their solution comes from realigning their creative principles with the needs of the people they value most.
Hancock then extends this observation into one about how possessive creative artists can be of their work, and how their characters are a reaction to shortcomings in their personal lives. The film slowly unfolds the origins of Mary Poppins in relation to Travers' upbringing, specifically involving her alcoholic father, played very well by Colin Farrell. In creating Mary Poppins, Travers is seeking to comprehend what happened to him. Even if she and Disney were on the same wavelength, she cannot 'let Mary go' because it's such an indelible part of her life, and sharing her with the world would involve sharing parts of her life in which she has little pride.
The emotional weight and interesting themes are ultimately what seal Saving Mr. Banks as a great comedy-drama. What begins as a breezy, somewhat spiky comedy about a grumpy author slowly becomes something more bittersweet and meaningful. If we go in expecting the whole film to be a boxing match between two juggernauts, we come out pleasantly surprised by the depth of character on offer. The film is still funny all the way through, but it's humour with a purpose and a deep sense of respect.
Saving Mr. Banks is one of the most purely enjoyable films of 2013, boasting great performances throughout its stellar cast and good work from a previously middling director. By providing more insight into its subject than you might expect, it rises above the conventions of the biopic, delivering a film which is both intelligent and emotionally fulfilling. Whether as an interesting look at the art of adaptation or a celebration of Mary Poppins, it is on every level a genuine treat.


For a more in-depth discussion of the merits of light and dark storytelling, check out JesuOtaku's review of Madoka Magica here (the discussion about storytelling begins around halfway in).

Saving Mr. Banks was #5 on my list of favourite films from 2013. Click here to view the full list.

NEXT REVIEW: Finding Nemo (2003)