Hollywood movies about Hollywood can seem like a bit of a wank. Nothing more than an industry patting itself on the back. A movie made by Disney studios telling a story of their founder and the making of one of their most iconic movies? That should make it even more of a back slapping wankfest. Never the less, I was sucked in by the trailers and the cast. But it all worked out OK, because Saving Mr Banks is exactly the kind of back slapped wankery I was hoping for.
While working with Disney, Travers also butts heads with composers the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak), screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and salt of the earth limo driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti). Of course all of her objections to their tinkering with her source novels are less about her hatred of cartoons and Disney’s artificial world of wonder, and more about the guilt she feels over her father’s death when she was a child.
The story’s great, the direction is tight and the 60s era looks amazing, but it’s the performances that make Saving Mr Banks so immensely watchable. Are there any more likeable actors than Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson? Even at his smarmiest and most ingenuine, Hanks makes Disney charismatic and impossible not to like. Even at her most shrill, stubborn and deliberately obtuse, Thompson makes sure we understand what made Travers this way and that we know there’s goodness underneath.
BJ Novak, probably most well known as the douchey Ryan on the American version of The Office, shows he can hold his own when it comes to dramatic acting. Giamatti takes a total cliché and turns it into a real character. And if there’s anyone in the running to take the mantle of most likeable everyman from Tank Hanks in years to come, it’s Jason Schwartzman.
Saving Mr Banks has copped a bit of criticism for the rose coloured glasses view it has of Walt Disney, and the liberties it takes with Travers’ reaction to and opinion of Mary Poppins the movie. I’m sure Walt wasn’t nearly as nice as the movie makes him seem. Or as Meryl Streep so eloquently put it recently, “the real-life Walt Disney was an anti-Semitic, woman-dismissing shit”. And I believe the claims that Travers hated the movie his studio made. But when a movie is as entertaining, enjoyable and heart warming (possibly the first time I’ve ever used that phrase without sarcasm) as Saving Mr Banks, I don’t care about the odd massaging of the truth here and there.
Sure, by claiming to be a true story, the film makers have a responsibility to stay within a certain distance of the truth. But more importantly, they have a responsibility to make an entertaining, compelling movie. To think any ‘true story’ is the absolute truth is a little naive.
And while I can easily turn a blind eye to those concerns, I think it was inevitable that, as an Australian, I’d have an issue with the accents in the flash back sequences. Farrell’s is a little all over the shop, but that’s fine, he’s supposed to have come to Australia via England and Ireland, and I could hear little bits of all three dialects. But Ruth Wilson as Travers’ mother makes me wonder if people not from this side of the world even realise there’s a difference between Australia and New Zealand. She only gets half a dozen lines of dialogue, but all of them sound like a half assed, cartoonish hybrid of the most obvious Aussie and Kiwi affectations.
The biggest surprise for me in Saving Mr Banks was the location of PL Travers’ tumultuous early years. Allora, her busted ass, middle of nowhere childhood town, is only half an hour from Toowooomba, the slightly bigger busted ass, middle of nowhere town I grew up in, and I had no idea she had once lived there. For a region that’s biggest claims to fame are Olympic runner Cathy Freeman and a handful of Rugby League players, I can’t believe the Travers connection isn’t exploited to the point that her origins would be common knowledge ‘round them parts.
You’ll see every moment of character and plot development coming a mile away. The plot is equal parts schmaltz, cheese and over sentimentality. The performances are broad and you can clearly see the strings being pulled on every emotion the movie wants the audience to feel at every moment. But all of that is OK. When a movie does all of that, but does it deliberately and expertly, it’s just as impressive, entertaining and effective as the twistiest mind bender, the subtlest art house darling and the grittiest, heart breakingest drama. And Saving Mr Banks is the most deliberately and expertly made, oversentimental, schmaltzy cheese I’ve seen in a long, long time.