Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Review: "Saving Mr. Banks" is a Delightful Treat for Fans of Old School Disney

Emma Thompson
There is a novelty of films that take place behind the scenes of beloved films. In a sense, they serve less as an analysis of the creators, but more as reasons to just watch the original films. The purposes get lost and almost feel like pointless fan service. In a sense, a film about beloved Disney film Mary Poppins is bound to be full of in-jokes and kitschy moments for the several who have fallen in love with the Julie Andrews character. Even if director John Lee Hancock can never expect to outshine the charm of the iconic musical, Saving Mr. Banks at least manages to give his behind the scenes story plenty of purpose.

One of the strongest proponents of Saving Mr. Banks is not in the actual sale that the story is surrounded with. It is actually in the story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), whose stuck-up personality contradicts that of studio head Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and keeps Mary Poppins from becoming a reality. There are comical nods from songwriters Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) as they compose the famous song numbers. As fun as these moments are, it is the revelations that come from Travers in these moments. 

The story is paralleled with Travers as a young girl (Annie Rose Buckley) whose love for her father (Colin Farrell) influences various portions of the popular character's narrative. More than anything, what Saving Mr. Banks strives for is to analyze how Mary Poppins came into existence and what significance it has not only to Disney, but also to this woman's life. Throughout the course of the story, the mystery is unraveled and the clues as to Travers' infatuation with Mary Poppins becomes increasingly clear. It serves as a character study of a woman with a difficult childhood whose only course was to ventilate through writing.

It helps that Emma Thompson turns in a dynamic performance that at times seems repressed, but also full of spiteful wit. She manages to be poised among the hyperactive energy of the Sherman Brothers and Disney and while it may at times feel like humorous jabs at iconic imagery, it is effective because of how it depicts Travers self-preservation. The film is undoubtedly a Disney Studios film otherwise, with all of the dark corners polished and any other conflicting elements edited to seem more satisfying as a family film. It feels safe for general audiences and paints the Disney culture in a positive light. While this creates general conflict regarding Travers' initial degradation, it helps that it isn't the central problem.

The film almost serves as Disney propaganda in that way. The general, optimistic finale is a heartwarming end to a story that when viewed as a character study, manages to show the power of literature and how personal attachment can be understood. It is a rather effective, family friendly way of encouraging future generations of writers to follow their dreams. Set alongside an enjoyable depiction of the negotiations to Mary Poppins, it manages to carry more weight and give more energy to the overarching themes. 

It seems strange that a story based around negotiations could be so full of humor and life. Along with audio from the actual conversations, the film feels finely detailed and even holds a sense of authenticity. While Tom Hanks' depiction of the iconic Walt Disney persona may be a little goofy, the choice to play him as a pitchman works effectively. It is only in choosing to parallel this film with Mary Poppins that things could become problematic, as some moments can feel too on the nose and the comedic points don't click for those who aren't already obsessives. Even the Thomas Newman score, filled with driving piano and swelling strings, has a sense of recalling the familiar songs that adds to the merriment, but loses impact without prior knowledge.

Saving Mr. Banks is in every way a Disney film about the power of Disney films. With that said, it does hold all of the magic that comes with the name. There's plenty of enthusiastic humor and delightful nods to the franchise. Emma Thompson carries the film with ease and makes her grouchiness shine as comical antithesis. The film manages to give weight to the behind the scenes negotiations by making the results feel personal and the success a triumph of the will. Even if the film doesn't feel essential to Mary Poppins enthusiasts, it does manage to add insight into the creator and dissect one of the more fascinating female protagonists of the year through captivating, great intersecting, flashbacks.

Left to right: B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman
As stated in a previous post, I do believe that Saving Mr. Banks will do rather well in racking up Oscar nominations. Even if it walked away with only one Golden Globe nomination, this isn't always the case with Oscars. However, the one nomination it did receive was for Emma Thompson in Best Actress, and it seems like a lock at this point. In fact, right now according to statistics website Gold Derby, she places in fourth with odds of 15:2. As it has been since this summer, Cate Blanchett appears to be the inevitable winner with her stunning performance in Blue Jasmine. She leads with odds of 13:8.

Then there are the other fields. I honestly do feel that while Saving Mr. Banks is a superior film to Captain Phillips in overall success, if Tom Hanks gets one nomination this year, it is for the latter. The final moments of Captain Phillips are deservedly worth of the buzz and co-star Barkhad Abdi is capable of receiving a nomination more than Hanks as Best Supporting Actor in Saving Mr. Banks. The only way he could get nominated is if the Oscar bias pays off and the love for the most decorated Academy Award winner transcends into his otherwise adequate performance. Even then, Gold Derby has him placed barely in the top five with odds of 14:1, tied with Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.

One of my surprise desires is to also see this get into the Best Editing field. While I rarely talk technical categories, I do believe that this film features some of the most effective transitions of 2013. Even if the marketing ignored the Travers childhood story line, it is rather effective and the way that moments transition are ingenious within context. While it is likely to go to more technically advanced films, like Gravity, I do feel like the nomination would be well deserved. As seen in efforts like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, more grounded dramas can win this field. Even if Saving Mr. Banks feels somewhat safe and won't be remembered for technical merit, I do feel like a nomination could keep it from feeling like a thankless job. In fact, it doesn't even rank in Gold Derby's top 10. 

Finally, is the film capable of getting a Best Picture nomination? Despite missing out on the Golden Globes, it is likely to be the "surprise" nominee. Of course, with the subject being about one of the most decorated collaborators in Academy Award history, it is doubtful that the Oscar bias won't play into them at very least receiving a nomination. While this continues to look like the year of 12 Years a Slave, the nomination if feasible with the sliding 5-10 nomination scale. As it stands, it is in sixth with odds of 12:1 and is currently tied with The Wolf of Wall Street.

The only real issue is the score. Ironically, this is a situation that I had last year in regards to Thomas Newman. For the most part, the score is adequate and serves the story well. However, the rules of the Best Original Score do feel bias. While There Will Be Blood was disqualified for using previously existing music, last year saw Skyfall receive a nomination despite using pieces established by the more recognized works of Marvin Hamlisch. Even if the melodies in Saving Mr. Banks are more in line with simple references, it does break the ethics of the "original" score concept. This continues to be a frustrating point for me and 

It is doubtful that the film will win any awards, though I do believe it will rack up quite a few nominations, notably in the acting fields. Even if the editing will probably go overlooked, the production is solid enough to fly on its simple enchantment. It is a rather accessible, enjoyable film with plenty of memorable moments. It serves as a great behind the scenes film and an even more engaging character piece. However, it is a Disney film through and through and may work as pure entertainment, but the Oscar race is already a little too thick to suggest the film as having much shot as a front runner. Still, according to Gold Derby, it is placed in third with odds of 6:1.

Is Saving Mr. Banks capable of being a runaway hit at the Oscars? Will Tom Hanks receive double dipping in nominations with this and Captain Phillips? Does Emma Thompson's excellent performance give her any shot at topping Cate Blanchett in the race?

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