Review: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ frustrates more than it entertains

Published on Thursday, 26 December 2013 20:59 - Written by By Stewart Smith

Is the truth still the truth when you’ve only heard one side of a story? The film purports to tell a true story, one that recounts the behind-the-scenes battle between Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). Disney has a standing, 20-year promise to his daughters that he would adapt Travers’ treasured “Mary Poppins” book into a film, but Travers is averse to any notions of whimsy or charm, the very things upon which Disney built his empire.

In fact, Travers would be just fine not having a film made at all, but given her dire financial straits, she has little choice in the matter. However, she won’t sign the rights away without a fight, or at least without insisting on near totalitarian creative control. The battle begins once she flies to Los Angeles to work with Disney’s creative team and almost immediately stonewalls them from anything that would deviate even an inch from her original vision.

The overarching story is probably true in the broadest of broad strokes, but even taking into account the liberties that always are taken with films of this sort, it’s almost impossible to trust “Saving Mr. Banks,” given that it was produced by Walt Disney Studios. In other words, the entire thing should be taken with the largest grain of salt possible.

But even taking that into account, “Saving Mr. Banks” frustrates more than it entertains or enlightens.

There’s actually a pretty interesting story floating under the surface here. The film touches on Disney’s personal fight to get the film made, not only because of the promise he made to his children, but because he sees it as a way of redeeming and preserving the memory of his own father. Getting “Mary Poppins” made wasn’t just a notch on his belt as a man with an entertainment empire, it was something personal. Had “Saving Mr. Banks” taken the time to more fully contrast that against Travers’ own story then we might have had a film that retained some meaningful thematic resonance and shown things to be more than just a man’s fight against a harsh, emotionally wounded author.

Instead, we actually get something akin to two films, as we constantly (to my annoyance) alternate between Travers’ work with the studio creatives and flashbacks from her youth in Australia. Born Helen Goff, Travers adopted her father’s first name as a pen name. He might’ve been an irresponsible alcoholic, but in his oldest daughter’s eyes Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) hung the moon, and “Mary Poppins” was her way of honoring his memory.

But what could (and should) have been a nuanced examination of a woman’s fight to preserve the memory of the one she loved the most is instead mostly reduced to “she has long-lasting daddy issues and she’s really mean as a result.” Yes, her prickly, icy demeanor is a defense mechanism, but even once her deep emotional scars come into full view and our empathy merited, I found it difficult to be on her side so thoroughly is she depicted as being terrible, joyless person.

At least there’s no fault to be found with the performances featured. Hanks might not physically resemble Walt Disney all that well (Disney was much thinner and gaunt at that point in his life), but he inhabits the essence of the man quite well. He (and for at least one point to its credit, the script) does a fine job of acknowledging that there were two very distinct sides to Walt Disney, the very public persona that everyone knew from television and the theme park, and then the private man, the one who smoked in his office and insisted everyone be on a first name basis. Hanks is one of cinema’s all-time greats and this year proves why. His performances in this and “Captain Phillips” could not be any different, and yet he still gives in both what are distinctly “Tom Hanks” performances.

It’s Thompson, however, who might be too good. As I said earlier, it’s difficult to eventually try and root for Travers’ emotional redemption because she’s presented as such a joyless harpy. Much of that is on the back of the script, but it’s also because Thompson immerses herself so fully into this role and does such a thorough job of bringing out what the script calls for. Is her presentation here true to life? I can’t really say, but if this really is what Travers was like, then I am both impressed by and feel sorry for Thompson for finding a way to so fully inhabit this woman’s persona.

This was a frustrating movie. There’s a fascinating story waiting to be told, but I suppose it was always going to be told by Walt Disney Studios first so perhaps it was unfair (or at best unrealistic) to expect any sort of objectivity. If nothing else it made me eager to find some way to read up on how things actually went down.

Should you go see this? Sure. The performances are great across the board. Farrell is wonderful, it’s always great seeing guys like Paul Giamatti and Bradley Whitford in supporting roles (even if they’re not given much to do here), and Hanks and Thompson are both top notch. Just realize that you’re getting something closer to a hagiography of Disney than anything resembling objective truth and you’ll likely get more out of it.

Grade: C