Early last May I ran a rave review of Kelly Marcel‘s script of Saving Mr. Banks. The name of the piece was “If Saving Mr. Banks Is As Good as The Script…” Well, I saw Saving Mr. Banks in London this morning, and I’m sorry to say that the movie I “ran” in my head as I read Marcel’s script seemed a little better than the version I saw today, which has been directed in a cautious, somewhat rote fashion by John Lee Hancock. I didn’t hate or dislike it. I felt reasonably engaged. It pays off reasonably well at the end. But it tries very hard to please, and you can feel that effort every step of the way. And it’s aimed at the squares.
This isn’t to say that Saving Mr. Banks, which will open the AFI Film Fest on 11.7, lacks feeling or spirit or finesse. It has these qualities plus two stand-out performances from Emma Thompson as “Mary Poppins” creator and author P.L. (i.e., Pamela) Travers and Tom Hanks as the legendary Walt Disney. It will be popular, I’m guessing, with those who love the 1964 film version of Mary Poppins as well as the patented Disney approach to family entertainment. And it may snag Oscar noms for Thompson, Hanks and Marcel. And it may make a pile of money from a blend of family and general audiences. But it’s not my idea of a Best Picture contender…sorry. It doesn’t feel carefully measured or focused or shaded enough to warrant that honor. It’s too hammy, too family-filmish — it approaches a farcical tone at times. And it tries too hard to make you choke up.
The Disney-distributed flick will open commercially on 12.13.
Banks is about Mrs. Travers’ growing discomfort and anguish in seeing her very own Mary Poppins (i.e., a magical but tough-minded nanny she created in a series of stories that were largely based on Travers’ childhood experience in Australia) being turned into a cheerful whimsical Disney musical aimed at kids. The story focuses on a series of tough creative disputes between Disney and Travers over the Poppins screenplay when Travers, who had negotiated a script approval clause when she sold the rights to Disney, visited Los Angeles in 1961 to hash things out.
Travers calls for more reality, flinches at the whimsical lah-lah music and loathes the idea of animated penguins. She expresses these three points again and again. She feels she isn’t being heard and she won’t back off. Like any writer, she wants to protect her characters and mythology. For Travers, Mary Poppins is not about whimsy and fantasy but the difficulties of real adult life and the complex and shadowed fate that awaits all children. For her Poppins is personal and is definitely not about sugar-coating, and so while she needs the money, she despises the idea of turning an obviously fanciful and yet lamenting personal tale into a semi-animated Disney confection.
Marcel’s script conveys an experience familiar to all screenwriters and filmmakers, about the occasional frustration and anguish of translating a work of great personal meaning into a commercial motion picture, and about the dilutions and compromises and (when a family film is being made) sugar-fizz stirrings that are sometimes part of the process.
The movie eventually turns on the fact that the key emotional episode of Travers’ young life was the alcoholic torment of her father, Travers Robert Goff, played in the film by Colin Farrell. I didn’t relate. Farrell is playing a weak self-destructive drunk and we’re supposed to understand and empathize with his daughter not minding this or overlooking it? A drunk is a drunk is a drunk. Generally not “lovable.” Usually erratic, selfish and abusive. Why suggest otherwise? To what end?
Good as Thompson is at playing the frustrated, spinster-like Travers, I didn’t much care for her company. She warms up toward the end but is a bit of a drag for the most part — finicky, a scold, argumentative, a bit slow at times, emotionally blocked. And Thompson seems to play every scene exactly the same way, pursing her lips and crossing her arms and frowning and then frowning a bit more. Plus I couldn’t understand her half the time because of the echo-y sound in the Odeon.
I liked Hanks’ Disney a lot more — an amiable, good natured fellow who gently nudges and cajoles but never argues or confronts. He really is the low-key, easy-going Uncle Walt. And he has a very solid scene at the end when he visits Thompson in her London home and lays his personal-history cards on the table, and explains what movies have the power to do. Will Hanks get nominated for Best Supporting Actor? Maybe but he’s not delivering a blow-the-door-off-the-hinges performance here — he’s just being his usual smooth and workmanlike self.
And what’s with the wig on Hanks’ head? He and the real-life Walt have/had roughly the same hairline so I don’t get it. And why didn’t Hanks drop a few pounds before the cameras rolled? Walt never had a chubby face.
The supporting players were all apparently told to stick to the same two or three emotions through thick and thin. Paul Giamatti as Travers’ chauffeur — warm, kindly, patient. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as Mary Poppins songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman — earnest, anxious, a bit afraid of Mr. Travers. Bradley Whitford as Mary Poppins cowriter Don DaGradi — mostly confused and depleted by Mrs. Travers’ intransigence. Ruth Wilson as young Pamela’s mother — unhappy, frustrated, depressed. Kathy Baker as Tommie, a Disney executive and Walt confidante — anxious, perplexed.
I can only repeat that Marcel’s wise and intelligent script was one thing and the movie is a little different. The screenplay seemed like an emotionally poignant adult-level dramedy that was amusing and yet “real” in a low-key way — it was written with a certain comedic tension but it seemed to unfold in a more or less natural, semi-believable way. You could sense the hand of an adult (i.e., Marcel) taking you through it. Saving Mr. Banks, the movie, feels a lot broader and more on-the-nose.
Marcel’s script and the movie version of Saving Mr. Banks are nominally one and the same, and so both use the same flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in early 1900s rural Australia. (Naturally.) But somehow the Australian material (roughly 45% of the script) felt a little more shaded and water-colorish on the page whereas the screen version of this material feels less subtle and more “performed” — as if this portion is being pushed rather than happening on its own terms.
You think I’m happy about giving this film a comme ci comme ca review? I’m not. I flew a long way to see it a bit earlier than most. I’m not sorry I came (I love London) but I wish it had done more with the potential I saw in the script.