The thing about the “good” Hollywood movies is that the world view they offer is so in the common pool, and usually terrifically biased. This doesn’t mean they don’t feature excellent performances; they often do. It doesn’t mean they aren’t shot beautifully; they are. But the lack of subtlety and intellectual sophistication, the uncomplicated world view, undermines much of what Hollywood has to offer.
This is all true about Saving Mr. Banks. The story of Mrs. Travers, played by the admirable Emma Thompson with subtlety and complication, nevertheless shows her as nothing short of a difficult bitch for almost the entire film. The story then goes on to explain her difficult bitchiness with moving scenes of her tragic childhood in Australia. You might say that this offers a level of complication, but the problem is that it gives us an American understanding–we’re difficult because of our difficult childhoods. Psychologizing ourselves, we rest easy that we understand.
Now, there was a great deal of pathos in the revelations of Mrs. Travers/Helen Goff’s childhood, don’t get me wrong. I cried. I related. But I also fumed at Tom Hanks’ super genial nearly perfect Mr. Disney (call him Walt). The writing led us to see the story as an explanation of a difficult woman, and though our sympathy toward her grew, we were always firmly on Walt Disney’s (and therefore Hollywood’s) side.
This may sound like a truly negative review, but what I mean to say is that this film, like most films coming out of Hollywood, frustrates me. The film is about artistic collaboration, in the end, or should be. And there is great truth in the difficulty of bringing an original artist into a collaboration with an unlike aesthetic. Mrs. Travers came into the collaboration with a dislike of Disney’s cartoons, his lack of subtlety, his artistic stamp….and the only reason she came was for the money, which she desperately needed. Add to this the deeply personal underpinnings of the story, and you have a recipe for disaster. I should know, by the way, since I have done this, twice.
What the film is missing is the exploration of the artistic conflict. If it had questioned Disney’s aesthetic instead of championing it, if it had revealed the final product of Mary Poppins as a strange mixture of Travers’ need for pathos and the cartoon/Hollywood easy answer style of Disney, it would have been a great movie. But instead, it only personalized the conflict–and while you eventually understand that both Disney and Travers are trying to tell the story of their very different fathers (which is interesting), Tom Hanks’ playing of Disney as relentlessly likable made this admission on his part just…more Hollywood vanilla. More easy answers.
I left the movie feeling moved, but also wanting to stomp my feet and go write a story about artistic collaboration and the way conflicting aesthetics and a director/producer’s need to tell one story and the writer’s need to tell another create an angst-driven mess. In the end, it’s always whose world view will win. Disney won in the making of the movie (Mrs. Travers never did like the film Mary Poppins), and he won in the portrayal here. Problem is, that isn’t fundamentally interesting.