By Steven Zeitchik
5:04 PM PST, January 3, 2014
Every award season brings the movie that everyone loves, the film that's so likable it's impossible not to like.
Which always makes some people not like it.
Quickly filling that role this year is John Lee Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks," the P.L. Travers biopic-cum-"Mary Poppins" creation story, that spoonful of sugar about the making of "Spoonful of Sugar."
As you probably know, the film centers on the real-life Travers (Emma Thompson), who, after years of resisting Hollywood overtures to turn her book series into a film, grudgingly heads to Tinseltown. There she proceeds to make life gloriously, hilariously difficult for a game Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and an equally can't-we-all-just-get-along Sherman brothers before — non-spoiler spoiler alert — acquiescing in an inevitable third act that shows the woman has a heart after all (sort of).
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Already the film has run into questions about its factuality — the real P.L. Travers is either more ornery or less difficult than the film suggests — and certainly sands the edges off ol' Walt himself, which for the film's skeptics isn't surprising given that it's being released by the company he founded.
Questions of historical accuracy aside, these are, it seems, relatively small details, pecadilloes of populism on the road to the kind of narrative and emotional satisfaction a piece of commercial filmmaking like this needs.
But in a new post on Grantland, the critic Wesley Morris makes a more damning case against "Mr. Banks." Basically, Morris says that he thinks the way the film jerry-rigs the story — as a recalcitrant author throwing tantrums while around her all executives and screenwriters want to do is convey her magic — sets up a straw man, and a dangerous one at that. In "Mr. Banks' " Hollywood, no fear of a Hollywood creative ransacking is ever justified; no work is ever in actual danger of being co-opted or corroded. "It feels like a warning from Hollywood to the ambivalent creators of anything: Take the spoonful of sugar or we'll force-feed it to you," he writes in the post, titled, strongly, "A Spoonful of Cyanide."
That the film is coming out from the very studio often accused of putting other visions through its pasteurizer presumably only heightens the sin.
My own reaction to Morris' argument is a dual one. I don't know that the movie is that agenda-driven, and I'm not even sure that's the effect; Travers is clearly petulant and makes some ridiculous demands, but since she also says things that anyone who's created a work and felt protective of it will identify with, that somewhat blunts the straw-man effect.
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It also doesn't take a ton of critical perspective to make one realize that Walt Disney in reality could not be the single-mindedly helpful and cheery joy-delivery system depicted here; the very act of painting him so simply actually makes him less credible and the movie less effective as a piece of pro-Hollywood propaganda.
That said, Morris does have a point: If every creator who ever wrote a book, play, song, graphic novel or other piece that Hollywood was interested in trusted anyone who walked in the door with a bag of money and a sack full of promises, we'd see even more good people and books trampled on than we already do. Yet the movie often seems to suggest they should.
But I also wonder if in a way this whole debate is beside the point. At issue in "Saving Mr. Banks" is what people a decade or two later would, of course, call selling out, the act of compromising vision for material gain. But in a contemporary climate in which commercials featuring songs by the Who have long been de rigeur and some of the most successful creators are comic-book geeks and other bastions of outsider cred, these are questions that have long been put aside. "Mr. Banks" can seem like a straw man not because Disney is so good and Travers so evil but because the very act of questioning the sale of a piece of material to a big entertainment conglomerate has all but disappeared.
Indeed, the overriding reaction one has watching the film, particularly younger audiences, is not "Is she being too picky?" but "If she can make a lot of money selling a piece she already crafted the way she liked (and which history tells us ended up becoming a pretty good movie anyway), why the heck shouldn't she?"
Morris wonders why the movie has tilted it so that there is no option but for Travers to sell out. But the more relevant issue may be not whether a movie takes Hollywood virtue and plays it up but whether a modern world has long ago taken the question of selling out and played it down.
Follow me on Twitter at @ZeitchikLAT
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