by Steve Habrat
Director John Lee Hancock is no stranger to crafting crowd-pleasing dramas. He’s the man responsible for such films as Dennis Quaid’s 2002 sports drama The Rookie and Sandra Bullock’s unstoppable 2009 hit The Blind Side. When it came to telling the enchanting story of how Walt Disney managed to get the rights to P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins, Hancock was certainly the man for the job. Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks is certainly a well-oiled piece of period filmmaking with several performances that certainly scream for Oscar. It’s a mushy tale about how much the character of Mary Poppins meant to Travers, served up in a candy shell that audiences are guaranteed to savor. Both Hancock and Disney Studios are playing to our hearts with the emotional script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, but the magic of Saving Mr. Banks really comes alive through the performances from its spread of A-list celebrities. This is Emma Thompson’s show, but Tom Hanks, who is still hot off the success of Captain Phillips, warmly beams his way through his performance as the ultimate dreamer, Walt Disney. And then there is the sweet performance from Paul Giamatti and a particularly touching turn from Colin Farrell, who becomes the film’s beating heart and soaring soul.
Saving Mr. Banks picks up in 1961, with Mary Poppins author Pamela P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) tight on money and low on options. Through her agent, Diarmuid Russell (played by Ronan Vibert), Pamela receives an offer from Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) for the rights to her beloved story so that he can make it into a movie. At first, Pamela refuses to sign over the rights to Disney, who she believes will ruin her very personal story, but her reluctance to right another novel to bring in more money puts her in a difficult spot. With no other alternatives, Pamela travels to Los Angeles to meet with Walt to discuss the project. Upon her arrival, Walt goes above and beyond to charm the scowling Pamela, but each one of his attempts bounces right off her thick skin. Pamela soon begins meeting with scriptwriter Don DaGradi (played by Bradley Whitford) and composer/lyricist brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to pour over every single detail of the script, storyboards, and musical numbers—all of which she finds fault with. As the exasperated Disney crewmembers try to please Pamela, she strikes up a friendship with her kindly driver, Ralph (played by Paul Giamatti), and begins flashing back to her dysfunctional childhood in Queensland, Australia, with her alcoholic father, Travers Robert Goff (played by Colin Farrell), who instilled a vivid imagination inside the young Pamela.
Saving Mr. Banks juggles two storylines, one which flashes back to Australia, 1906, which gives us a glimpse inside Pamela’s upbringing at the hands of her drunken but loving father and her wounded, soft-spoken mother (played by Ruth Wilson). The scenes set in Australia are given a fairy tale glow, romanticized and shimmering in true Disney fashion. The dramatic outback flashbacks are met by the scenes set in 1961, which posses a more humorous side as Pamela grapples with her idiosyncrasies with her beloved character. Thompson plays Pamela as a porcupine of a woman, a prissy control freak who never passes up a chance to put old Walt Disney in his place. When she isn’t complaining that Los Angeles smells like sweat and chlorine, she ripping into ol’ Walt for anything and everything. Initially, she appears to be immune to Walt’s charms and she scowls every time she lays eyes on a familiar mouse that we have all come to adore. When she meets with DaGradi and the Sherman brothers, she stomps her feet and demands that all of their meeting are recorded. She especially detests the songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and she groans over the mustache added to the character of Mr. Banks, an addition that Walt has personally requested. For as cold and heartless as she seems to be, Thompson molds the character into a sympathetic soul who wrestles with painful memories that she feels doesn’t deserve the pixie-dust whimsy that she is convinced Walt will give her story.
As far as the rest of the performances go, Hanks beams his way through his performance as Walt Disney, a happy-go-lucky businessman who is absolutely perplexed by the whirlwind that is Pamela. Watching his reactions to feisty writer is a treat, especially when she recoils in horror at his suggestion of taking a trip to Disneyland. As his battle to make the movie culminates, he tells a personal story that reveals his understanding over how much the character of Mary Poppins means to Pamela. Then there is Giamatti, who gives one of the most sensitive performances of his career as Ralph, Pamela’s gee-whiz limo driver who makes every effort imaginable to get to know this rigid sourpuss. Watching Ralph develop his friendship with Pamela is hilarious and near the end, it takes an emotional turn that will make your heart swell. Whitford nabs several chuckles as DaGradi, the cautious scriptwriter tasked with battling with Travers on a day-to-day basis. Schwarztman and Novak are a terrific tag team as the Shermans, the composers who just can’t seem to come up with a tune that gets Travers tapping her toes. Then there is Farrell, who just leaps across the screen on the wings of imagination. Behind closed doors, he is a withering heap of a man consumed by alcoholic demons and an illness that threatens to take his life. However, when he is facing the young Pamela in the sun, he is a dancing court jester, her encouragement to never stop dreaming or chasing imagination. Trust me when I say that this role is one of Farrell’s finest hours.
Considering that Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney production, the film’s sets and cinematography look like a million bucks. While there was no filming in Australia, Hancock does a marvelous job transforming various locations around California into the dusty Australian Outback. It should also be noted that there isn’t a single shot in the entire picture that isn’t crisp, clean, and gorgeous, always eager to show off the fantastic period clothing and set design. Hancock and his screenwriters also do a marvelous job with revealing little secrets about Pamela’s past to the viewer, whether it is her dislike for pears or her fury over Mr. Banks having a mustache on screen. Every little reveal is balanced throughout the picture, one being just slightly more emotional than the last one. Overall, while there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Disney studios has sweetened this story up in places, Saving Mr. Banks is still a wholesome little movie that touches on the importance of imagination and pleas with each and every one of us to never loose our child-like sense of wonder. Thompson and Farrell are Oscar worthy in their respective roles, Giamatti’s Ralph is unforgettable, and Hanks is clearly having a grand old time slipping into the skin of Walt Disney, a role he was born to play.
by Steve Habrat
After last year’s lemon Cars 2, Pixar has returned to form (sort of) with Brave, a thunderously exciting and comedic offering that falls victim to childish antics that never have the dual appeal for adults. Lacking zero complexity, Pixar opts for a simple story and keeps things light this time around, reluctant to show their emotional strength. Brave also lacks the vision that made their previous offerings so irresistible and unforgettable, seeming somewhat bland in comparison to tasty offerings like Wall-E, The Incredibles, Up, and Toy Story. Yet Brave, with its enthusiastic voice work and detailed visuals, still manages to get on your good side with some clever moments of slapstick humor that will have you chuckling due to their unpredictability. It also features an immensely likable main character in Merida, an archery obsessed tomboy who likes to allow her unruly explosion of red curls bounce around her face as she rides through the woods shooting arrows at targets. I admit I was worried that I may not care for this feisty free spirit but I have to say that she is a real charmer.
Brave takes us to the 10th century Scottish highlands where we meet Merida (Voiced by Kelly Macdonald), the archery fanatic daughter of King Fergus (Voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Voiced by Emma Thopson). Merida happens to be a tomboy who loves riding her horse through the woods and firing arrows at several targets she has placed around a trail. She also gets a kick out of climbing up the sides of mountains to drink from waterfalls. Merida is a firm believer in pursuing one’s own destiny rather than having her life planned out for her by others. Her behavior horrifies her mother, who demands that she learn to act like a lady before three neighboring clans arrive in their kingdom for a competition that would allow one young man the chance to win Merida’s hand. The clans arrive and each clan leader offers up his first-born son to compete for Merida, even though she is disinterested in the entire event. Merida grows restless during the competition and she erupts in an outburst that infuriates her mother. Merida runs off into the woods where she finds herself face to face with a witch (Voiced by Julie Walters) that offers her a spell that would change her controlling mother. The witch conveniently forgets to add that there is a small side effect that changes her mother’s appearance too. Meanwhile, the clan leaders begin to grow restless over who will win Merida’s hand, slowly stirring up war between King Fergus and the neighboring clans.
Pixar’s first fairytale does come with quite a bit to admire even if it is reluctant to tackle any heavy topics. I can honestly say that Brave had me laughing from start to finish. I loved how rowdy the film was even if things do get a little too out of hand at times. Brave has tons of shouting, drinking, eating, singing, fighting, brawling, and more shouting, sometimes driving the viewer to a headache but it is all in good fun. You’ll get a bang out of King Fergus as he stomps oafishly through the frame, devouring chicken legs and chugging cup after cup of ale. The heads of the three clans, Lord Dingwall (Voiced by Robbie Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Voiced by Craig Ferguson), and Lord MacGuffin (Voiced by Kevin McKidd), are all equally boorish and disgusting in their own right but they do manage to grab a whole slew of giggles. The one interesting aspect of Brave is that the film is not hiding the fact that it is advocating female empowerment. The men are made out to be clueless and battle hungry in addition to their already hearty appetites. Yet the men are compassionate to the women and they do respect them, which does make Brave’s message a bit perplexing. I understand that Merida wants to break away from what is expected of a lady but I thought we were over this old fashioned defy-conformity-and-do-what-makes-you-happy message by this point.
Brave is, after all, a ladies show and the guys are just there to fill some space. Merida acts as a firm role model for young girls, a less gritty and animated Katniss Everdeen for five-year-olds. Director Mark Andrews pushes Macdonald to really emphasize the Scottish brogue, making her a bit cartoonish at some points but that actually adds to her appeal. She is the liberal answer to her conservative mother Elinor, who is tied to old-fashioned behavior and unwilling to accept anything less. She warns Merdia to keep her bow off the table and that she better grin through the pain of a corset. A blow-up between these two worlds is the only moment that Andrews really cranks the emotional intensity up a notch or two. When the spell is cast upon Elinor, the plot takes an unexpected twist that worried me at first but then really gains some momentum and keeps the laughs flying. The other female character that I was intrigued with upon first meeting her was the witch, who is introduced halfway through the film and then never heard from again. I kept wondering when the story would return to her and develop her further. Alas, she magically disappears.
While I enjoyed all the main characters in Brave, there was a trio of scene stealing tykes that won me over early on and kept me in stitches every time they scampered into the action. I’m talking about Merida’s three trouble making younger brothers who gag over their dinners while plotting ways to make off with trays of sweets brought to them by their servants. Wait until you see the scene where they have to steal a key off one servant, who stashes it in her cleavage. The Pixar team manages to deliver one hell of a pay off in the final stretch of Brave, offering more satisfying action than most of the other blockbusters that have taken up space in the theater this summer. Yet the Pixar team seems unsure over how to make a film that is aimed at younger girls and the message to send to that demographic. It falls back to something that would have really been saying something before the Women’s Liberation Movement but today, it just seems lazy, especially after what Pixar has accomplished with some of their other work. It may not be the best of Pixar’s bunch and you may yawn over what it trying to say underneath all the yelling but Brave still manages to be one of the better films in a summer that has been filled with duds.