Monday, October 21, 2013

'Saving Mr Banks' (2013) directed by John Lee Hancock

As Mary Poppins famously sang: "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down". So it's appropriate that Saving Mr Banks is a sickly sweet sugary film, but it's not a spoonful that slides down, more great granulated gobs of the stuff pumped down our throats like force-fed foie-gras geese.  I'm no enemy of sweetness, light and optimism but there are limits dammit. Especially when in this case, the glittering 'goodness' of the story is a whitewash for a rather depressing and sordid bit of creative prostitution.

Saving Mr Banks is ostensibly the story of how Disney's Mary Poppins made it to the screen.  It takes the form of fuzzy biopic of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers as she grapples with Disney creatives and struggles to retain control of her intellectual property. This isn't so much about the process of shooting Mary Poppins, but rather a dramatisation of script editing meetings and creative conferences.  What it boils down to is the adversarial relationship between P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), an uptight, emotionally repressed, archly stern English lady and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), a cool, laid-back genius, friend to everyone he meets.

Disney wants the rights to Mary Poppins, we learn at the beginning of the film that Disney has been trying for 20 years to secure them, but Travers, who's fiercely protective of her creation, has repeatedly told them where to stick their cheque.  This year things have changed, Travers is close to bankruptcy and faced with losing her beloved house.  Feeling the pressure, she reluctantly agrees to meetings with Disney about a film adaptation.  Travelling to L.A. she is horrified to discover that they plan to turn her book into an all-singing, all-dancing musical with animated penguins and Dick van Dyke as cheery cockney chimney sweep Bert.  The rest of the film shows her being slowly won over by the Disney corporation until the glittering premiere where, obviously, Mary Poppins is a rousing success.

Interweaved are flashbacks to Travers' childhood in rural Australia, where we examine her relationship with her father, Travers Gof (Colin Farrell).  These show us why Travers is so aloof and reserved, exploring the dark secrets that  lie in her past and the real-life origins of Mary Poppins.

The critical problem with Saving Mr Banks is that its morally inverted, pushing us to identify with the powerful as they crush the weak - like rooting for Goliath over David.  The film wants us to cheer on the Disney Corporation, their mission in the film an altruistic spreading of peace and love for all children by the seizure of intellectual properties from authors.  Perhaps if this film wasn't made by Disney this would be a bit easier to swallow, but a film by Walt Disney productions that spends an inordinate amount of time fellating the frozen corpse of their founder leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Adding insult to injury is the constant portrayal of Travers as behaving unreasonably in seeking total control of her intellectual property (something that seems a bit hypocritical given how viciously Disney protects its IP). Saving Mr Banks acts as though a story being adapted into a Disney film should be the ultimate ambition of any children's author, so Travers' fiercely independent creative vision becomes an obstacle to be demolished rather than something to be celebrated.  

A personal annoyance in film criticism is people moaning that a film based on real events bends the truth to make a better story. Usually I couldn't give a toss, but Saving Mr Banks is an especially egregious example, transforming Travers, in real life an adventurous, mystical, openly bisexual badass into a stuffy old British stick in the mud.  Sure she's grumpy and miserable, but considering she's having to betray her principles and selling off her IP I think that's perfectly understandable.  The film even goes so far as to portray her as anti-feminist, something that really rankles when you know that Travers was vocally furious that the Disney film showed the suffragette Mrs Banks giving up her women's rights campaigning to become a happy housewife.  

The hurdle that the film has to clear is that the real-life Travers absolutely detested the Disney adaptation of her work, going so far as stipulate in her last will and testament that no Americans (and the Sherman brothers specifically) were to be involved in any future Mary Poppins productions. Saving Mr Banks gets around this not inconsiderable problem by engaging in some pretty seedy historical revisionism.  For example, it's true that Travers left the premiere of Mary Poppins in tears, in the film these are tears of cathartic joy, in reality they were tears of horror and shame at seeing her beloved work whored through Disney's very safe, very cosy and very fluffy lens.  

I repeat that I don't usually care about movies warping reality if it's in service of drama. But Saving Mr Banks doesn't do it in service of drama, rather to create a hagiography of the Disney corporation, and Walt Disney in particular.  Tom Hanks' Walt Disney is a non-character, doling out saccharine nuggets of wisdom to his goody two-shoes, vaguely cultish work-force. This is the idealised image of "Uncle Walt" that the Disney Corporation wants to promote, a saintlike genius loved by all, existing in a beatific state of flawlessness. Within this straitjacket Hanks barely has room to breathe, settling for a vague paternalism and homely monologues delivered in an accent that makes him sound peculiarly like Agent Smith from The Matrix.

The 1960s sequences of the film are at least visually interesting: a sanitised Mad Men pastiche for kids - the early 60s devoid of booze, cigarettes and sexism with nice retro wallpaper.  Thompson and Hanks are at least professionals enough to get us through this morally questionable material with little fuss, squeezing the maximum humour from the ropey script.  It's the Australian sequences where the film really falls flat on its face.  Colin Farrell as Travers' father never feels remotely like a real person and the film rapidly devolves into sentimental, melodramatic, syrupy bullshit.

Disney's Mary Poppins is indisputably a classic.  But here that's beside the point, Saving Mr Banks is a film that lionises a huge corporation exerting its full weight upon a financially vulnerable writer, taking a woman of intelligence, integrity and viciously exploiting her talents for financial gain and now in 2013 lying about how psychologically positive the experience was for her.  If Travers was apoplectic about her creations being Disneyfied one can only imagine the reaction to her actual life receiving the same treatment.  Saving Mr Banks is a perfect example of the old adage that history is written by the victors.

Saving Mr Banks is released on November 29th

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