Looks like Disney is getting to end 2013 on their own terms, a privilege rarely granted to your average person, but certainly less rare for multinational mass media conglomerates. It’s been a year where having the last word might be more important for the company than most, as the House of Mouse has taken a fair bit of battering in the last twelve months. Lucky for them, that house is home to cleanup extraordinaire Mary Poppins, and her roundabout return vehicle, Saving Mr. Banks, seems perfectly designed to ensure Disney goes into 2014 with as spotless a reputation as possible.
January saw the premiere of Escape from Tomorrow, a surrealist horror film shot guerrilla-style in Disneyland, leading to plenty of industry handwringing over whether Disney would take legal action. Even though its response was measured -wisely choosing to ignore the film, so as to avoid making a Matterhorn out of a molehill- the potential for a lawsuit was a reminder of Disney’s unflattering history as a copyright bully. Then The Lone Ranger flopped its way to theaters midway through the year, the redheaded stepchild in an otherwise strong year of releases, and it more than likely had a hand in Daddy Disney and Mommy Jerry Bruckheimer splitting up.
But with cold year-end winds and snow coming in, Mary Poppins has once more flown into theaters, looking to mend what little appreciable harm might have come to the Disney name in 2013. Cleaning up an entire Magic Kingdom takes a bit more effort than an English townhouse though, so it falls not to Mary and Mickey to save the day, but their creators, author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). A famously contentious pair, their war for the film rights to one of the greatest Disney films ever made has been turned into Saving Mr. Banks, a safely sunny exercise in mythmaking and selective memory.
By inserting one of America’s most beloved actors as one of its most beloved creators, Saving Mr. Banks has an obvious path to success laid out right in front of it. The twenty year span Disney spent fighting Travers to bring Mary Poppins to theaters, all to fulfill a promise he made to his daughters, would seem ideally suited for a biopic about the last great film of Disney’s life, one that could tip over into a hagiography without much trouble. Instead, Saving Mr. Banks keeps its marquee character and actor out of the spotlight as often as possible, preferring instead to talk around him with the excited chatter reserved for the likes Willy Wonka, or Santa Clause.
With Walt spending much of the film in the wings, Pamela Travers becomes the real star and heart of Saving Mr. Banks. The encouraging trend of female-led films from Disney Animation Studios seems to be bleeding over into the realm of live action, because this is Emma Thompson’s show to run, from start to finish. Her portrayal of Travers as a stuffy frayed nerve makes for a formidable match when opposite Hanks’ Disney, who even at his most vulnerable and human still seems like a tall tale come to life. It’s a dynamic pairing that Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t exploit nearly enough; Travers’ prickly and antisocial personality provides a interesting contrast to the whimsy of her most famous creation, but it’s a behavioural pattern that too often leaves Thompson with no one to bounce off of besides herself.
In danger of bankruptcy, but fearful of seeing her legacy bastardized, Travers reluctantly agrees to help develop a film version of Mary Poppins, using every opportunity to challenge the decisions of Disney and his Poppins team (which includesJason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the melodious Sherman brothers, and Bradley Whitford as Poppins co-writer Don DaGradi). Some key elements from the final film we know today slowly gestate and constant revisions, while others strike like Eureka! moments that are as precious as they are prescient (“it’s not just ironic, it’s iconic!” says Walt after first hearing what will become Poppins’ most famous catchphrase). But when it’s not coasting on audience fondness for the actual Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks comes to life in the rehearsal room, with sparks flying the more Travers and the Disney bunch butt heads with one another. At its best, the film is a comedic game of creative control, that at times resembles a custody battle.
Less successful are the film’s frequent flashes back into Travers’ childhood, and all the requisite tragedy that comes with growing up on a dirt-blown Australian farmhouse as the daughter of an eccentric, and alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). The transitions back and forth through time are well paced, but lack strong connective tissue, other than a quirk of the older Travers being explained by some little detail from her childhood. More disappointing is how the dual narrative unbalances the film, such that it seems as if Saving Mr. Banks feels like it’s trying to be two or three different films instead of one. The sequences with young Pamela are alternately dreamy, or darkly tainted by addiction, death, and suicide. As a result, the main narrative gets bogged down by father issues it only knows how to address with overwrought sentiment.
In the end, it’s hard to tell who exactly Saving Mr. Banks is supposed to be for, other than perhaps the Disney Corporation itself. Younger audience members won’t appreciate it for the nostalgia object that it often times is, while older viewers will have to stomach levels of schmaltzy sweetness that most taste buds grow out of. At the core of Saving Mr. Banks is a finely acted and insightful look back at the making of one of the crown jewels in the Disney empire, but the film too often trips itself up trying to be something more. It might look like a gem from afar, but Saving Mr. Banks is really just a pair of great performances drowned in amber sap.