Few studios have had as storied a history as that of The Walt Disney Company. Influencing the childhood of generations, the company has become as big a company and entertainment mainstay as any company on this planet. However, very few times have they allowed us into the history of The House Of Mouse (outside of supplemental documentaries on their Blu-ray releases), that is until now.
From director John Lee Hancock comes a new live action feature out of Disney, this time, taking a look at the making of one of the company’s most beloved films. Starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, the film tells the story of P. L. Travers, best known as the author of the novel that would ultimately be adapted into the adored Mary Poppins. However, it wasn’t an easy time getting this much-loved novel to grace the silver screen.
Coming into the spotlight in 2011 when the script arrived on the “Black List” (the much revered list of the best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood), Saving Mr. Banks finds writer Travers and one Walt Disney in the middle of trying to keep the character off the silver screen and trying to make a promise he kept to his daughters to get the film made respectively. Ostensibly a drama with about as much heft as a shoulder shrug, the only real tension here comes from the tenuous relationship between these two parties, and oddly enough, that does absolutely nothing to benefit the film.
Thompson is fine here as Travers, but herself may be indicative of what ills this picture. As a writer, Travers is deeply protective of her work, and ultimately has no interest in bringing the film into the hands of Disney. Thompson’s performance is entertaining for moments, but ultimately uninteresting and as bland as a Christmas dinner. Opposite her is Hanks as Disney himself, and the lack of depth to his character is startling. There are glimpses of a many deeply interested on pleasing his family, but instead what we get is a one note faux-caricature of a man that has become as influential a pop culture legend as there has ever been. Granted, yes, it’s a relatively small window of time spent with both of these characters, but when a supporting cast including names like Jason Schwartzman and Paul Giamatti prove to not only give the best performances, but also hold within them the most emotional resonance, there is a distinct problem with the picture.
However, the film isn’t simply about the making of this picture, and thankfully so. The real drama and emotional power here comes with flashbacks to the life of Travers, including her childhood and her relationship to her loving, but ill-tempered, father Travers Robert Goff. The inspiration for “Mr. Banks,” both the titular focus of this film as well as the patriarch in Mary Poppins, Mr. Banks, at its best, is an intriguing look at one woman’s attempt to, through art, save her father. Taken on by a rarely better Colin Farrell, Mr. Travers becomes the film’s most entrancing character, and ultimately the only sequences that any depth to the picture are those involving Farrell’s oddly magnetic lead. Toss in a few performances from names like B.J. Novak and Ruth Wilson, and you have a film that is chock full of fun and charming supporting leads, but is so deeply let down by a disturbingly bland pair of top billed A-listers that the film is ultimately about as enveloping as a snore.
And it’s not much better aesthetically. Never one to have a keen aesthetic eye, Hancock does this material a complete disservice, painting about as bland an aesthetic piece as his two leading actors do with their characters. Singularly “Hollywood” in damn near every way, the film has a sheen and a gloss to it that gives the entire picture a sense of falsity that never allows the viewer to forget that they’re watching names like Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson playing their characters. The opposite of what great performances do, the two leads are so cardboard that the only thing that keeps a viewers attention is all of the star power that comes on the screen, and even then, it gets tiring.
Ultimately a film that many audiences will find perfectly charming and a nostalgia-hungry Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences will find likely award worthy, particularly with its disturbing lack of drama and sense of ease given by actors seemingly sleep walking through their performances, this will likely do gangbusters when it arrives in theaters this weekend. However, with films like Nebraska, Wolf Of Wall Street and American Hustle either out or on its way to theaters this December, your money may well be spent saving up for one of these pictures. A fine rainy day watch, a rental may even be too risky for those with a taste for actual drama in their pictures. Avoidance may be best suited for this one.