A double dose of Disney. That’s the alliterative way of putting what I did the other night. I started with the Mouse’s latest animated offering (finally) and then moved on to their behind the scenes tale of making their ’64 adaptation of Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks.
The reason I chose to put the two reviews together is because in some ways they feed into each other and inform each other.
Saving Mr. Banks is a sanitized version of the trip that P.L. Travers took to Los Angeles to deal with Walt Disney, who’d been trying to obtain the film rights to her Mary Poppins stories for years.
Based on a logo that appears, it seems to be a BBC coproduction and actually reminds me of another ’60s set show biz tale that they were involved in, the Doctor Who-centric An Adventure in Time and Space. And like that film, Banks is imbued with the screenwriters’ attempts to be cute and tie everything together within the film as phrases and themes repeat over the course of its runtime; almost like a prequel built into the film itself, showing where every idea came from to a maddening fault.
Through far-away empty stares that turn into flashbacks, we see how everything in the Poppins books seem to come from exaggerations of her experiences growing up with her “Good Time Charlie” father (Colin Farrell) in Australia.
In doing so, they attempt to humanize her beyond what she reportedly presented in real life. While Richard Sherman of the iconic Sherman brothers (the duo that composed the film’s music and were actually responsible for a good deal of its tone, storyline and narrative) was involved in the film’s creation to a degree, some of his family has been outspoken over how many of their contributions were handed over to Travers in order to serve the dramatic and character needs of the film.
It’s true that a good bulk of Poppins was based on Travers’ books. But her books are widely regarded as being more of a series of vignettes than having any kind of a narrative throughline. Personally, I adore Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. However, without the character journey of Mr. Banks, the criticism Wonderland received with regards to a lack of narrative coherence is exactly the kind that would have been leveled against Poppins.
A history buff’s annoyance at the lack of subtlety aside, there is a lot to enjoy about the film. Emma Thompson’s prickly Travers is a euphoria of anxieties, failings and mental disorders. She sets herself up on a crusade to preserve her work from what she sees as the Disney machine. Part of me understands this, since I am an artist myself. (And the film acknowledges it in its own way through Walt.) Her performance always seems to be right on the edge of becoming utterly unlikable beyond repair, but she manages to keep from going over the top just enough to stay slightly relatable.
I’m a bit more on the fence about Tom Hanks’ performance as Walt Disney. I completely understand why they picked him. Like Disney, he is hugely known, widely acclaimed by the “Peoria” crowd and has managed to become a critical darling despite there being a group of sophisticates that disdains a lot of what he’s done as schmaltz. But to me, he never becomes Disney. He always just seems like Hanks with a mustache. Part of this may be the lack of any attempt beyond the ‘stache to make him look like Walt. Disney was ingrained so much in popular culture that even someone that was born more than a decade after his passing like me knows him instantly based on his television appearances and media saturation. I just never felt like he disappeared into the character of Walt. The voice and the mannerisms never seemed to consistently match. It might be a controversial thing to say, but when playing someone as famous as Walt Disney, there’s a need to have just a little bit of caricature involved. Karl Urban’s performance as Bones McCoy in the new Star Trek films is a perfect example of someone managing to imitate while maintaining enough subtlety in their performance to keep it from lapsing into parody. Hanks plays things so far from imitation that there’s never any danger of this, but there’s also never any danger of him truly embodying the Walt of public perception.
I was very impressed by the work of BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman Brothers. The duo manage to put out very different personalities with Schwartzman’s Richard being more naive and capitulating than Bob, the brother that was shot in the knee by the Germans. Novak serves as a release for the audience, visibly annoyed by the over-demanding Travers and sometimes voicing what most people would say when confronted by a person of her personality.
One thing that Mary Poppins (and the Sherman Brothers) did right was the music. They found a musical theme that fit the film and fed into the visuals. One wonders how much of the old ways are still present in the modern Disney studios, which seem to be in the early days of a third renaissance.
If there’s one main concern I would have about Frozen, it is that it doesn’t have that kind of strong musical thread to tie it together. While I have been a fan of Christophe Beck since his days scoring for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the music that he and the songwriting team of Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez use for the film just didn’t fit in my mind. From the Lion King-style gang vocals that almost seemed African to the top-40 Broadway-style songs, they seemed at odds with the production design that referenced Scandinavian culture mixed with the kind of Eastern European visual flair that filled Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. This isn’t to say that the music was bad, but it not only didn’t seem like a good fit, but was mostly forgettable.
(In the interest of fairness, however, let me point out that I may be in the minority for feeling that way. My sister-in-law says my niece has been singing Let’s Build a Snowman since seeing the film. And while that title personally makes me think of the show-stopper from Cannibal: The Musical, the number of parents chiming in saying the same thing would indicate that it certainly speaks to kids at the very least.)
Speaking of the visual style, my mind reels at the missed opportunities for lush backgrounds and animation (with some digital help for the beautiful, complex geometric patterns that come from the ice, of course) that could have been achieved had the film been drawn by hand as had originally been planned before the success of Tangled. Actually, most of my remaining issues with the film are similar in that it is one of the rare films that have me complaining that it’s not the movie I want to see.
I personally tend to hate that kind of criticism. And I rarely entertain those notions in my head. I’m here to offer thoughts and critiques of what is on the screen, not what I would have done. But there it was chugging along all well and good when it throws a late-narrative twist in which diffused what had been a better-than-average, complex character dynamic that the film had going for it. Seemingly for the sake of an easy conclusion.
Of course for me to care so much about things going (in my opinion) off track, it means there has to be something there in the first place. In this case, it’s a fantastic relationship between the main characters, Princesses Elsa and Anna. Their motivations are pretty well spelled out. There’s not a lot of subtlety here. It is a big musical, after all. But it’s a relationship that feeds on chemistry and on being different from any other Disney film. It’s a story based around sisterhood and family, and in less of a parent/child dynamic than Lilo and Stitch, which is probably the closest thing I can think of to their interactions. When you get down to it, the movie doesn’t need a villain. Their relationship and their sometimes misguided attempts to do the right thing are enough to base the entire story on.
When it comes to the cast, they’re uniformly good. For as much as I was unenthused by the music, Kristen Bell proves to be a highly competent voice actress with fantastic timing and a much better singing voice than I expected, given I don’t think I’ve ever heard her sing professionally before. I also think it’s grand that Alan Tudyk seems to be becoming a Disney regular after his terrific performance aping Ed Wynn in Wreck It Ralph.
It also is nice that most of the side characters are well done. Much better than you may expect after seeing the Ice-Age style trailers as a matter of fact. Olaf the Snowman and Sven the reindeer were severely overused by the Disney marketing department due, I can only assume, to how much people loved Maximus in Tangled. Thankfully they’re not nearly as annoying as they could have been in the film. Olaf seemed like he was going to be the most annoying sidekick character since Rosie O’Donnell’s Terk in Tarzan. But in the film he’s naive, slightly dim and utterly charming. A lot of this probably comes down to Josh Gad’s performance which manages to imbue him with a childlike innocence without ever tipping the scale to saccharine. And Sven, a character that easily could have been a Nickelodeon-style fart joke factory, manages to be fun because many of his visual jokes are background gags and instead of making him a person with horns, he is an embodiment of a slobbering, overexcited dog.
Meanwhile, speaking of critiquing what’s there instead of what isn’t, while I know in my heart of hearts that a hand-animated version of Frozen would have been better, the film still looks pretty darn good. The ice creations are gorgeous and the visuals do evoke the old Disney fairy tale films in many circumstances. The vague Eastern European-ness of it also works since there are times they invoke the timeless Universal horror films, especially James Whale’s Frankenstein films.
Overall, it’s definitely an entertaining film. It’s got a lot of great humor to it and it moves along at a good clip. It’s just not as good as their last two films in my opinion. I still strongly recommend seeing it. I will most definitely be revisiting it and seeing if maybe I get a little bit softer on the things that didn’t track with me.
Saving Mr. Banks:
(Three damns given out of five)
(Three and a half damns given out of five)