ON THE SILVER SCREEN: A SPOONFUL OF TREACLE (SAVING MR. BANKS)

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By Brian Lafferty

December 20, 2013 (San Diego) – What in the world were screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith thinking as they wrote Saving Mr. Banks, a colossal misfire in tone?  And director John Lee Hanchock (The Blind Side), who thought the script was good enough to film?  The upbeat, sunshiny trailers constitute fraud as far as I’m concerned.

Saving Mr. Banks stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books that Disney wants to adapt.  For almost twenty years, Travers refused to sell him the film rights on the basis that she felt nobody could do her books justice.  Faced with financial hardship, she reluctantly options the movie rights to Disney – much to his delight – but with one proviso: she must be given script approval.  This stipulation causes a major headache to everyone involved, as she demands many changes, from forbidding made-up words to changing the Banks’ mansion to conform exactly to that in the novels, right down to the color and square footage.  On a related note, the color red is out for reasons that become clear during the flashback sequences.

Travers, it turns out, had a less-than-happy childhood.  Her father (Colin Farrell) loved her very much, but he was a drunk and irresponsible husband.  He is also dying from tuberculosis (as foretold by the tell-tale movie cliché of coughing up blood, which invariably signals a character’s death).  As her father lies dying, her mother, Margaret (Ruth Wilson), attempts suicide by drowning in a river, only to be stopped by her little girl.  Desperate, Margaret hires a nanny that eventually becomes the inspiration for a beloved novel character for decades to come.

The main story is fun, witty, and superbly acted by all involved.  Tom Hanks portrays Disney as a mature, smart adult, but with a childlike optimism and outlook on life.  While he’s serious about the business side of entertainment, Disney acts like he’s never forgotten what it’s like to be a kid.  Thompson, however, is cynical and uptight.  The supporting cast includes Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak (TV’s The Office) as the Sherman Brothers.  Both are delightful and ebullient, another humorous contrast to Travers’ cold, humorless personality.  Paul Giamatti plays a small, but memorable role as an eager-to-please chauffeur.

The pleasure felt during these sequences dissipates every time the story flashes back.  But before I go into how depressing and unwholesome these flashbacks are, I first need to air a grievance I have about the gratuitous transition effects.  There are numerous, but I’ll cite the one in which Travers opens her hotel room window.  Sunshine bleeds through and overtakes the frame before the camera pans down to an Australian farm.  When the flashback is finished, the camera tilts up to the blue sky, which then transitions to a shot underwater, where Travers drops pears into the pool. 

Although editor Mark Livolsi (The Blind Side) thankfully dispenses with this less than halfway through, I nevertheless offer this unsolicited advice to aspiring film editors: the only thing worse than a gratuitous cut (the kind prevalent in Michael Bay’s films) is a gratuitous transition effect.  They are distracting, obnoxious, and call attention to themselves. 

Even worse than these effects are the flashback scenes they lead to.  It’s like driving from a clean, safe, and beautiful neighborhood with white picket fences, fresh green lawns, and children playing in the streets to a neighborhood lined with decrepit, ghetto houses with bars on the windows, dead grass, and people too scared to come out.  I am certain that the filmmakers could have constructed these sequences in a manner at least consistent in tone with the main plot.  It’s possible that they could have conveyed through these sequences how Travers’ father’s death and mother’s attempted suicide influenced her cynical outlook on life and why she didn’t want her father’s memory soiled without bludgeoning audiences with treacle and despair.

But they don’t.  They fail miserably.  These scenes are tacky and are as grim and dark as they read, but with an unhealthy slathering of treacle and cloying sentimentality that only makes it worse.  These scenes simply do not belong. 

To parents who are entertaining even the slightest possibility of taking your little ones to this film, I cannot urge you enough: please find something else to do.  Don’t think that just because it’s rated PG-13, that it’s safe for little kids.  There are better, happier ways to spend your holidays.  This isn’t it.

C-

Saving Mr. Banks is now playing in wide release. 

A Walt Disney Motion Pictures release.  Director:  John Lee Hancock.  Screenplay:  Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith.  Original Music:  Thomas Newman.  Cinematography: John Schwartzman.  Cast:  Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Griffiths, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak.  Running time:  125 minutes.  Rated PG-13. 

Brian Lafferty is an award-winning film critic and assistant editor currently living in San Diego.  He graduated with a B.A. in Radio-TV-Film from California State University, Fullerton.  In 2013, he won a San Diego Press Club Award for his film criticism, taking third place for his review of Before Midnight.  He welcomes letters at brian@eastcountymagazine.org.  You can also follow him on Twitter:  @BrianLaff.