Friday, 23 December 2016

Saving Mr. Banks

P.L Travers is broke. Her royalties have dried up. There has been a film rights offer on the table for 20 years, but Travers is highly protective of her work. The first 4 minutes of Saving Mr. Banks sets up the story with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Let me explain though how I came to love this film.

Emma Thompson is forceful, aggressive, yet very entertaining as P.L Travers. Throughout most of the film every line of dialogue she has is overly cynical and is delivered with a 'very English' demeanor, which is to say overt contempt. Even when others are being nice to her or trying to raise her spirits, such as her cheery and well meaning driver played excellently by Paul Giamatti. Mrs. Travers' stubbornness is never more evident than when Thompson reacts with disgust to finding her hotel room has been decorated with Disney toys and Mickey Mouse merchandise. Not even the magic of Disney can phase P.L Travers' bitterness. Many of my thoughts on the film to this point can be summed up by the moment Mrs. Travers removes the giant Mickey Mouse toy from her bed and sits it facing the wall, murmuring "you can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety". This line had me howling with laughter for the wrong reasons, because at this point I almost did the same to my TV. Attempts to put her character over the top could easily have felt overbearing in the hands of the wrong actress, but they are entertaining thanks to Emma Thompson. I'd expect no less from a footlights graduate in the same class as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Thompson's P.L Travers appears completely unflappable even after she finally meets with Walt Disney face to face. Mrs. Travers might not have been enamoured, but I was.

Walt Disney is played in this film by Tom Hanks, who brightens up the screen from the moment he walks onto it surrounded by trophies and memories. Hanks' performance made me smile every time he was on screen, and thats high praise for a character whose sole motivation is to acquire the rights to Mary Poppins. Once again motivations are made very clear very fast, as Disney wastes no time in stressing how long he had been wanting to purchase the rights, 20 years in fact. Tom Hanks made me smile every moment he was on the screen, and that, at least to someone of my generation, is what you would expect the mythical Walt Disney to do. The film does attempt in small ways to dethrone the cinema legend. One of the more notable instances of this is where he is caught smoking in his office, a habit he didn't want revealed publicly in fear that it would taint his wholesome image. Given that this is a Walt Disney Pictures film co-starring Walt Disney, this is as much dirt on the Hollywood icon we're going to get. I don't know much about the man himself beyond Disney's own media, but Hanks' Disney seems to care a great deal about his self image, and the impression he leaves on the world, and that is what makes him fascinating. The only other real slight on him is the lack of effect his charm has on Mrs. Travers, and this creates great chemistry between the two sides of the same coin.

Saving Mr. Banks does a great job at building P.L Travers as a magnificently stubborn character but then explaining deeply what made her that way. In sections throughout the film we are shown small segments of her early life. These are helpful in providing some interesting background, as well as giving us an entertaining Colin Farrell performance as Mrs. Travers' father, an increasingly complex character who wants to please his children to a fault. These flashbacks are cut into the story very well and they never feel intrusive or forceful. Given that the writers of this film seem to have no trust in the audience to work the plot out for themselves, the line "we have to teach the witch to be happy again" feels like another blow from that aforementioned subtlety sledgehammer. These scenes come to signify the struggle between Travers' headstrong defiance and her childhood memories of imagination and creativity powered by her father, especially when they are placed alongside his inevitable implosion. A line in the trailer tells you all you need to know, as does the films title itself. These asides begin to make you realise how important Mrs. Travers' creation is to her and why. We see why she aggressively protects her beloved Mary and the Banks'. It is here where we discover the core of her character, and I like how this builds throughout the film.

One the greatest things for me about Saving Mr. Banks is the musical score by Thomas Newman. At one point Newman invokes 'Hi Ho' from Snow White when introducing the Disney studios, a film that would have enraged Travers given her hatred for Disney's 'Silly Cartoons'. At this point I was struck by the irony that I was watching a film depicting a person who heavily resisted her own work being brought to the silver screen, yet is now on it herself. Newmans score conveys despair when you are looking at it, and joy when you are looking at that too. Ever since I saw American Beauty I have been able to spot a Thomas Newman score, and this made me enjoy the film even more.

If I were to describe the tone of this film in one word, it would be 'sunny', and this is evident even
from the photography. There are plenty of bright colours and vivid landscapes that make the film easy on the eyes. California is of course portrayed with nothing but sunshine, and the flashbacks are almost glowing with vibrance. The plot is filled with conflict and angst, so you really needed that bright tone to remind you that this is a Disney film.There was also a fair amount of humour drawn from Travers' conflict with Disney's writers and musical staff who each have their moment of levity. My favourite being a debate over the word "responstible" not being a word.

When we screened Saving Mr. Banks as part of our Film Club season some left the film on the edge of tears. This was soon alleviated by an extra I hadn't known existed in the credits of the real P.L Travers in the tape recorded writing sessions that are recreated in the film. Without saying too much these extras definitely serve the authenticity of the film, and I would hope that more of these tapes were made available someday, so that we might understand the creative process a bit more. This film succeeded in that is took a potentially combative and unfilmable thing, a business deal, and sprinkled some of that Disney magic on to make it both engaging and entertaining throughout.


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