Saving Mr. Banks was destined to be the first Disney film since perhaps Mary Poppins to accrue countless Oscar nominations across a multitude of categories. Unfortunately, the brilliant drama that explores the roots of how Mary Poppins evolved from page to screen failed to score more than one Academy Award nod. Why so?
This Disney In Depth aims to identify why Saving Mr. Banks may not have resonated with certain critics, despite the warranted buzz it received prior to its release. I also share how Banks should have been recognized at the forthcoming 86th Academy Awards.
The John Lee Hancock-directed drama, which masterfully provides context in how Walt Disney convinced P.L. Travers to sign away the film rights to her beloved book, has been viewed as a groundbreaking film for The Walt Disney Company. For one, it is the first time Walt Disney the man is depicted on the silver screen in a fictional manner (thanks, Tom Hanks, for your subdued and gentle performance). Even more, it is one of the few instances where a film studio (Disney) actually tells its own story of bringing a story (Mary Poppins) to reality. Most of all, though, it is the elements that work so miraculously in unison that convince me Disney has produced a rare dramatic masterpiece in this millennium. Putting aside its great sports films (Hancock’s The Rookie and Randall Wallace’s Secretariat) and the occasional amazing adventure (think of Eight Below), most live-action pieces from the company are more in the fantasy or science-fiction vein. Not that there is anything wrong with those genres, but the startling Disney drama is more of a rarity than ever before.
Then came along Saving Mr. Banks, which enlisted some of Hollywood’s best talent, both on-screen and behind the scenes. Mary Poppins is rightfully regarded as one of Disney’s greatest creations, for its performances, music, storytelling approaches, and once-novel technical achievements landed it in the hearts and memories of audiences worldwide.
I believe it was the intention of the filmmakers and movie supporters that Banks would be viewed by the Academy Awards in the same way as Poppins some 50 years ago. But it didn’t, as evidenced by its sole nomination (for Thomas Newman‘s touching musical score). Thankfully, at least the Academy noticed this one signature element of the film. Newman, known by many for his unique orchestration that incorporates rarely heard instruments, sets up each track in a grand manner – sometimes in subtle ways. He uses the Poppins songs from Richard M. Sherman and Robert Sherman (depicted in the film by the charismatic Jason Schwartzman and understated B.J. Novak) as an influence to certain cues. Yet Newman crafts his own musical atmosphere, which possess a dichotomy of great joy and sadness, quite relevant in P.L. Travers’ world. Just watch this piece on the role of music in the film, and you can see how the power of the properly placed note can set up an environment.
The cynical part of me thinks the Academy Awards may not even give its sole nomination a shot for the prized trophy, as Saving Mr. Banks must contend with the novelty of Steven Price’s Gravity, a monumental, well-done score. It is one which mirrors the intense imagery on-screen, but yet does not succeed as well as a sole aural experience. Saving Mr. Banks, on the other hand, works both independently from and concurrently with the visuals.
Had anybody expected Saving Mr. Banks to only secure one Academy Award nod, I am sure almost everyone would have agreed on Emma Thompson‘s sardonic and incisive turn as the troubled author. How often does a performance so perfectly transfix you on a character? Thompson’s Travers is not presented as just a cold, bitter woman, but one whose past (intertwined quite seamlessly with the 1960s-set scenes) offers more than a glimpse into her personality. It defines her. Thompson’s performance here is as good, if not better than, Sandra Bullock in Gravity. I adore Bullock and think Judi Dench‘s role in Philomena has understated presence, but despite my Saving Mr. Banks fervor, I still see Thompson as on par with the actual nominees.
Speaking of performances, who would have imagined that Colin Farrell, once termed as a Hollywood bad boy, would give an unexpectedly sincere take on Travers’ father. Travers Goff, who suffered from alcoholism, is portrayed as a loving father whose drinking literally consumes his life. With grace and heart Farrell commands the screen in this supporting role, which too should have earned him an Oscar nod. Sure, the competition is fierce this year, but Farrell did not earn even one nomination among the major film societies and awards groups.
I would be remiss if I did not touch on Tom Hanks taking on Walt Disney. Some argued the performance was just Hanks playing Tom Hanks, or even Walt Disney as Tom Hanks. I disagree. This film was not meant as a Disney biopic, as he is more of a side character and individual that counteracts Travers’ harshness. Yes, Hanks does not entirely capture Disney’s voice or appearance. But his mannerisms are all present. Even more so, Hanks committed himself to this role, learning as much as possible about the man to capture certain components flawlessly. I think Hanks was the perfect choice for Disney and places another feather in his cap of outstanding performances. Nobody was going to adore anybody daring enough to play Walt Disney, and most regretfully, neither would the Academy. It was the role of a lifetime, and I think Hanks did Disney justice. Hopefully we will once again see Disney on-screen, perhaps as a young man during his early years. Hanks, too, did not receive enough praise for this performance. Hanks made Disney his own character, an honest and quiet reflection on a man whose determination and relentless spirit could sometimes get the best of him.
From a technical standpoint, I can easily list several categories in which the Academy Awards should have nominated Saving Mr. Banks: Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; and Best Production Design are just a few that come to mind. This film takes you to a place and time. Perhaps it is not to space or the 1800s, but this interpretation of Australia in the early 1900s and Los Angeles of the 1960s feels authentic.
All of these points beg the same question I keep harkening back to. Why did the Oscars overlook Saving Mr. Banks? Quality defines this emotional film that extends its scale from absolutely hilarious to incredibly sorrowful. Some critical individuals would call a film like this as manipulating or even heavy-handed, but I cannot share that sentiment. Banks takes viewers on a journey that extends insight into how Hollywood operates (which the Academy tends to love). It also offers a peek into famous cultural figures of the 1900s via both P.L. Travers and, to a lesser extent, Walt Disney. The Academy loves movies based on real people. So why, why was this not enough?
Many gifted individuals shaped great performances, films, and technical elements in 2013. Saving Mr. Banks was one of them – that is, from the critical eye of this Disney connoisseur. But the disdain that the Academy has for more family-oriented films (though I would contend this is more mature than most Disney movies), and the criticism the film received for Disney patting itself on the back, may have hurt its Oscar chances. My argument for why it was not recognized may contrast other film analysts, who may say that the film just wasn’t all that good. I see Hancock’s film as a love letter to both Travers and Mary Poppins.
When Saving Mr. Banks arrives on home video, make it a double feature with Mary Poppins and determine if it seems to be as magical the 1964 musical.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.