A Spoonful Too Far
An unexpected actor is the one who shines brightest in this contrived but nonetheless uplifting story of Mary Poppins’ journey to the big screen.
PG, 125 min
N.B. Given that this is another film which was released in 2014 here in France, compared to 2013 in the UK, I’m thinking of calling Saving Mr. Banks the second part of my ‘Out of Time’ series (and yes, I’ve just made that up). As per the last film I reviewed, How I Live Now, the characters are each searching for something, and are fast running out of time to get it. Except that here, nuclear war doesn’t break out (surprise surprise), because it comes from the house of Mickey.
So it’s another Disney film, but this time with a difference, in that it’s actually about Disney himself. Well, him and someone else. Going by the dubious literal title of ‘In Mary’s Shadow: Walt Disney’s Promise’ in France, you get the feeling that it’s going to be a charming, cosy tale from the outset. I’m usually a complete sucker for that type of thing, but I wasn’t here. Perhaps I’ve grown cynical with age, but Saving Mr. Banks struck me as too contrived to ever fully work properly.
The film concerns itself with the (as it turns out) long and arduous journey involved in bringing P.L. Travers’ novel Mary Poppins to the big screen. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has tried everything over the course of 20 years to try and get Travers (Emma Thompson) to hand over the rights to her beloved book, but she won’t budge, thinking it will be changed too much. And then, after all that time, Disney pulls out all the stops and wheels/coerces the author out to his backyard for one last convincer. This runs alongside disconcertingly frequent flashbacks, where we see a young Travers (who was back then inexplicably called Ginty, and also quite nice) growing up in Australia with her frazzled mother Jane Eyre (sorry, Ruth Wilson) and alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).
Herein lie most of the film’s problems – her father is portrayed as an idealistic, glass-half-full man, whose semi-permanent state of staggering merriment is just an unfortunate by-product of his life. Yet Ginty is still utterly devoted to him, and so it doesn’t chime at all with the snobbish, buttoned-up, exacting woman she grows into. However, that’s probably more to do with the fact that she’s then played by Emma Thompson, who wisely stays just on the manageable side of annoying (most of the time).
But whilst I’ve never been a fan of Thompson, and she’s good enough here, thankfully other members of the cast make up for it. Tom Hanks brings a warm, comforting side to Disney, whilst not being afraid to show the king of animation as calculating and vaguely sinister, prepared to do anything to get what he wants, and fully aware of how much power he wields.
However, Banks’ real star comes from a singularly unheralded source, and it is in fact Paul Giamatti who, for me, steals the show as Ralph, Travers’ loveably goofy chauffeur whilst she’s out in California. His dopey charm sparks off some of the best scenes of the film, which automatically perks up whenever he appears, in one case telling a story that may just change things.
And this, I think, is where the Disney drama is strongest – when demonstrating the power of stories. Be it, in various cases in the film, coming to terms with your childhood, trying to understand the way of the world, or whatever else, stories are always there to support you. Whilst this is not a new idea, it’s a nice one, and just what you expect from a Disney film. As a concept it’s a little overplayed at times, but still welcome, and so, despite the little irksome annoyances, I can say that it probably all won me over eventually.
But, as with all stories, you have to question what’s real, and that’s also the case here. You have no way of knowing what Travers did about the rights to her book in real life (unless you’ve read up beforehand), and so no way of knowing whether what’s happening on the big screen is, in fact, the truth. This is based on a real-life story, too, which rather devalues the whole thing. Saving Mr. Banks isn’t in the same mould as, say, The Social Network, where the ambiguity of the whole truth-versus-reality situation actually added to proceedings and made the film even greater. Here, unfortunately, the lack of clarity just muddies the waters, making the film rather less supercallifragilisticcan’tspellthedamnthinganyway and more chim-chim-inee-chim-chim-che-boo.
But enough of me harping on about narrative, that’s what my degree’s for – Saving Mr. Banks is sweet enough in its own way, and it goes down very easily as an in-the-moment viewing experience. It’s just a shame that, like Travers’ own gloriously sunny formative years, it might not linger too long in the memory. If you fancy something that will, I’d head on back to the English countryside with that Irish lass.
P.S. If you’re wondering what the blazes that title means, don’t worry, they do bring it up – and it’s quite clever.
P.P.S. If you’re wondering what the P.L. stands for, my review is sealed.