Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
PG-13. It's so weird because I just watched The Spy Who Loved Me and Saving Mr. Banks this week. Because it is Blu-ray, the obscured nudity in The Spy Who Loved Me is just straight up nudity now. But The Spy Who Loved Me, with straight-up nudity, is PG. The Disney movie about the lady who made Mary Poppins is PG-13. I don't know if it is PG-13 worthy. Dad is an alcoholic and dying, which is uncomfortable. Mom is suicidal. But I don't know if it is worthy up being bumped up to PG-13. Again, live action automatically bumps it down from G. Oh, Walt Disney swears once or twice. There's also alcohol and smoking throughout.
DIRECTOR: John Lee Hancock
Gah! I have so many opinions about this movie. Like, way too many opinions. I'm not the first one to deal with the very problematic issue that Saving Mr. Banks exists. We are probably all aware that "Based on a True Story" means that certain beats are true, but most of it is fictionalized. But Saving Mr. Banks takes it to a new level of insanity. I feel like I have to spell this out because this movie is six-years-old and people haven't thought about it for a while, but P.L. Travers would have hated this movie. It goes beyond the Hollywoodization of reality. This is straight up revisionist history. The biggest problem...is that it is really well made.
I have so many problems with this movie that I absolutely loved. The big takeaway, for me, is that sometimes you can't help liking or hating something. If you come up to me tomorrow and say that I'm a monster for liking this movie, I will have to say that you are totally right and I'm going to have to learn to live with myself. This movie is awful for what it is doing. I'm going to go into all the reasons that someone should have pumped the brakes real hard for deciding to make this movie, but I do want to write about how Saving Mr. Banks does something right that very few biopics do. (Mainly because it is a work of fiction...but I digress.) John Lee Hancock, the director of this movie, is someone who is on my list of directors that act as red flags. This is coming from his long line of sports movies, one of which is The Blind Side. The Blind Side has one of the most troubling narratives that people choose to ignore ever and if anyone can ever sucker me into watching that movie again, I'll write about it in detail. But Saving Mr. Banks has the same thing. The reason why John Lee Hancock's troubling filmography works is that he makes genuinely heartwarming, well-shot films that completely gloss over a major problem in storytelling. With The Blind Side, Hancock was really interested in the feel-goodery. He does that in Saving Mr. Banks, but he attaches it to something that we're intimately familiar with. He also makes the movie kind of feel like he's not letting Disney off the hook. I guarantee, the movie is completely letting Disney off the hook with this movie. I don't care how much of a fight is being put up, Disney is getting away scott-free as the good guy. But the biopic formula is a little skewed. The movie breaks up the chronology pretty hard and I, for some reason, adore that. We know that Travers had a rough life, but that rough life seems realistic for the first time. Instead of just riding the bad times, the movie actually stresses the good times. It offers a complex view of the moments that shape us. It gives us insight into what a real life Mary Poppins would look like and why Travers, as a grumpy old lady, would hate the idea of a Disney-fied version of her literary character. Her reality is really different. But if I just look at a story telling version, Hancock makes a solid looking film that uses chronological disruption to break up what would otherwise be a tedious narrative. We actually understand this fictionalized Travers and she makes sense to us while the dramatic irony stays in tact for the other characters. I don't think we ever really get on her team, but we want to see the Ebenezer Scrooge disappear.
Okay, let's talk two big elephants in the room when it comes to this movie. The first one is the fact that the Walt Disney Company kind of rewrote history to make themselves the good guys in their own story. This isn't how it went down. This movie portrays P.L. Travers as a boorish monster who seems grumpy due to her history with her parents. She seems like she is coming off the rails, treating the fictional Banks family as her own. When seemingly arbitrary changes are made to her mental images, she flies off the rails and intentionally torpedoes any progress to the film. Yes, she's a funny version of grumpy and I can stand behind that. But she really has that Ebenezer Scrooge quality I mentioned beforehand. She mind as well be saying "Bah! Humbug," to all this Disney nonsense. She comes across as a stick in the mud while Walt Disney comes across as remarkably charming. Remember, Disney made this movie. Disney is a saint in this film. Yeah, he gets his comeuppens pretty often in this movie, but in adorable ways. The film has the advantage of popular opinion behind it. Disney Studios making this film is wholly unfair. Right now, if I asked you your opinions on Walt Disney, you probably have one. Maybe some of you might be calling him a Nazi. There's that urban legend flying about. But basically, you know the creation of Mickey Mouse and how Disney has brought joy to children all over the world. If I asked you anything about P.L. Travers shy of what you learned from the making of Saving Mr. Banks, a fraction of people could list off that she created Mary Poppins. We know so much about Uncle Walt and nothing about P.L. Travers that the movie can kind of coast on that. Really, Hancock just have to have Tom Hanks play Walt Disney functionally and he comes across as lovable. On top of that, most people's association with the character of Mary Poppins comes from the film of the same name. A lot of people haven't read the book. My daughter is reading it right now, which inspired us to watch this movie. But when we hear songs being created and know that these moments are major hits in history, we can't understand why P.L. Travers is digging her heels in. Doesn't she have the same insight that we do that this will be absolutely perfect in every way? No, she's untrusting of the Disney corporation because they tend to make the same kind of movies time and again. These people are singing nonsense words that seem to misunderstand what her life's work is about. She's not a villain, but she comes across as one for much of the movie.
And this leads into something WAY worse. The theme of the movie would be about how women would be happier if they just smiled a little more. Stop fighting for what you believe in. This group of men have everything together. You think you understand your female protagonist? Nope. The men will tell you to chill out and just accept it. There's a little bit of "uppity woman" problems going on with the movie. Honestly, I could reframe the living daylights out of this movie very easily. The author of a book falls on hard times and the biggest company in the world tries to take advantage of that. When she's on the verge of starving, Walt Disney throws her money to survive as long needed. Sure, he comes across as a fan. He's the best friend. But he fundamentally doesn't understand what this character is about. He's concerned with making this palatable to families everywhere and that's not what the author wants. The author wants to stress that normal people go through hardship and sometimes they just need a little help. Smiling won't make problems go away and Disney should realize that. But he's just getting annoyed with her. Why is she fighting so much? Doesn't she know that the men have this all together? No one is ever going to like her unless she smiles once in a while. I mean, Saving Mr. Banks doesn't play it that way, but I can't help but see this. It's really icky that Travers is financially strapped at the beginning of the movie and that Disney comes in. He stresses that he's been trying to do this for twenty years and she finally said "yes" out of desperation. Where's the part of the story that Disney wouldn't want it unless she was financially okay beforehand? Disney straight up lies to her. He breaks every one of his promises from the beginning of the movie. He's super shady, the more you think about it. She's supposed to be a co-writer in this movie, but everyone ignores everything she says. She has reasons. Yeah, some of the choices are completely arbitrary. But she doesn't like the hands that are crafting this new script and she's fighting for what she believes is right. It's not fair that history didn't agree with her. It was her decision to make and why doesn't the movie stress that? That's why Disney isn't allowed to make this movie. It's nowhere near being objective. Yes, it's great having the original songs pepper the movie. You can actually use footage from Mary Poppins in the film. Mickey Mouse and Disneyland are everywhere and that's fun. But clearly, they aren't going to show their own company as the bad guys. Disney is this image of wholesome fun and that has to be maintained. I love Tom Hanks, but even casting Tom Hanks is a little unfair. He's America's dad. He's this wholesome guy that everyone already loves. Yeah, he's played bad guys, but casting Tom Hanks as Walt Disney is a bit on the nose. The movie isn't challenging. If anything, it begs its audience not to challenge it. There's a clear good and that is the production of one of the most famous Disney entries from the early era. Mary Poppins, as a film, has permeated our cultural consciousness and the film dangles that over the audience's head the entire time. Of course P.L. Travers should come around because, if she didn't, we would be robbed of something wonderful. But it also is done at the expense of someone's right to not have it in existence. Travers is the victim in this story.
Sure, we have Paul Giamatti in the movie. It takes the whole show and turns it into a microcosm of the actual story. But that event is wearing down on the audience's morals. By having a complete victim like Giamatti in the story, it gives her power and places her in Walt's shoes. The dynamic between Disney and Travers is then flipped with Travers and Ralph. It's manipulative. I don't know if that element of the story actually existed. It feels very Hollywood-y and I don't know if I approve. Regardless, I love Giamatti. And this analysis has made me very uncomfortable with my choices. I know that I liked the movie. I actually liked it a lot. But it is a deeply unfortunate movie. I know that a lot of people won't view the movie from my perspective. If the point of this blog is to watch film critically, it is because there is a lack of active viewing in society. Lots of people watch movies to give their opinions, but few people look at the deeper meaning of these movies. Who wants to write an essay a day about the deeper meaning of movies that were never meant to be watched twice? But Saving Mr. Banks might be the crux of that argument. Movies like this and The Blind Side skate pretty under the radar for attention, which is no bueno. I can like a movie because it appeals to my senses and is heartwarming, but I also shouldn't shut off my brain all of the time. Yeah, we can like Saving Mr. Banks all we want, but I really don't like that it exists.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.