Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

15 December 2013

Way More than a Spoonful

I was prepared to quite dislike Saving Mr. Banks. I find it really difficult to deal with performances that look really broad or appear to comment on their characters to an enormous extent. Such is the case with the trailer for John Lee Hancock's tale about P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, meeting Walt Disney as he tries in 1963 to make what would become the iconic musical film with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

Let's not lie, this is adorable.
Saving Mr. Banks works in an identical way to a cartoon from earlier this year: Monsters University. In Mr. Banks, the film is entirely dependent upon us knowing and loving the 1964 film. Banks can easily assume that we have seen and love that film, and so the film is filled with in-jokes and references, many of which are quite funny.

But the whole thing is so overtly cloying and treacly! Mrs. Travers is an uptight, awful woman who hates everything about Los Angeles and wants nothing to do with the way Walt Disney does business. She hates cartoons, she hates musicals, she hates fairy dust, and she thinks Disney is a money-grubbing capitalist son-of-a-bitch who wants to stuff Mary Poppins into his enormous dynastic machine.

And we're supposed to A) think Mrs. Travers is wrong and B) laugh at her, while also, C) knowing she'll eventually come around to Walt's point of view, and D) hoping she learns a lesson. This for me is the film's most important problem. We know from the beginning what ends up happening. We know they make the movie. And we know the movie turns out to be delightful. We've seen it! In other words, we know that Mrs. Travers is wrong. The whole time. It isn't that she might be right or her fears make a kind of sense or anything like that. We know that she is wrong. And so she deserves our laughter. Walt Disney is right. Mrs. Travers is being an uptight, fun-hating killjoy and we can feel superior to her throughout Saving Mr. Banks.

There is a second story haunting Mr. Banks and that story is P.L. Travers' childhood relationship with her own father. These sequences take place in Australia where the family is basically penniless. Her father is a wonderful dreamer of a man, who is (as it happens) also an alcoholic. Little P.L. Travers adores her father and wants to save him, but being a child, she of course has no idea how to do that. I actually loved every single sequence in Australia. In contrast to the hyper-Disney point of view of the main story, these Australia sequences have a nostalgic feel but also a kind of weight. There are stakes in this storyline: the love of a daughter for a father, a mother's relationship with her children, the ability of a man to take responsibility for his choices even though he is a free spirit. And Colin Farrell as the real "Mr. Banks" is just perfect. It is one of my favorite performances of the year. (Incidentally, I love that Farrell is playing character roles instead of leading men these days: it allows him to show off his considerable talent without the burden of carrying a film by himself.)

In other words, the movie isn't without things to love. Even in the 1963 sequences, there is some fun stuff: Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman Brothers are lovely: just the right note of cartoon and earnestness (perhaps because they are a pair). They are a nice contrast to the exhaustingly absurd performances of Bradley Whitford, Tom Hanks, and Melanie Paxson. And by the end of Mr. Banks I sort of loved Mrs. Travers even if she was a cartoon. I love the book, and so I want to love her. I had come around to the film so much that near the end when Mickey Mouse appeared at the Mann's Chinese Theatre, I found him charming. But then during the screening of Mary Poppins, Mrs. Travers tells Mr. Disney that "she can't abide cartoons" and I thought to myself and yet this whole film is more of a cartoon than the original Mary Poppins. Saving Mr. Banks gives us a whole cupful of sugar when only a spoonful was needed.