The James Clayton Column: Saving Mr Banks, saving your childhood

Feature James Clayton 29 Nov 2013 - 06:14

As Disney's Saving Mr Banks arrives in UK cinemas, James explains why calculatedly sentimental films aren't necessarily a bad thing...

Saving Mr. Banks is a film about the making of the 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins. Chiefly, it's about the clash between the exceptionally difficult P.L. Travers (author of the original Mary Poppins books) and Walt Disney and his House of Mouse colleagues. It's a fascinating and wonderful film, and it's fascinating and wonderful for many reasons.

John Lee Hancock's biopic has a lot going for it - excellent acting performances, a witty script and superb production design are just a few commendable features that immediately jump out as I reflect on the film. Repeat viewings will undoubtedly bring its various rich nuances to the fore and, as a multi-faceted wide-appeal movie with several layers, it's likely to touch different viewers in different ways.

The main reason I personally enjoyed the film so much is the contextual subject matter. To watch Saving Mr. Banks is to take hopscotch steps through chalky memory boxes and find yourself reminded of how much you love Mary Poppins. (And if you don't love the musical masterpiece that is Mary Poppins, well, I don't think you and I can ever be friends and go on a jolly holiday together. You've made this tea party very sad. Please leave now.)

Saving Mr. Banks stoked up many burning questions in my mind and one of them was "Would you have enjoyed it as much if it was about another movie - either real or made-up - and not Mary Poppins?" The answer is definitely "no, I wouldn't have", and that's also the case with Shadow Of The Vampire, which embellished urban myths surrounding the production of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu.

The film means so much more because it's centred around the creation of a motion picture I'm familiar with and have a strong affection for. I've rose-tinted recollections of a childhood where Mary Poppins was on a constant VHS loop and, maybe by dint of repetition, I suppose I built a deep relationship with it. I like movies about filmmaking in general but if the films in question are films you love, the whole exercise has greater resonance. I'd say that's a general truth - taking an example from earlier in the year, there'd be a limit to your appreciation of Hitchcock if you're not slightly-psycho about Psycho. It's possibly also true that the experience of Tim Burton's Ed Wood is enhanced if you check out Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Back to Saving Mr. Banks, though, and the emotional breakdown I had in the cinema when I was watching it. I'm a sentimental guy and have many weepy moments in the dark of a multiplex, but after this screening I decided to get a grip of myself and make a conscious effort to explore my reaction. Feeling so full of feelings, I decided that Saving Mr. Banks was a perfect opportunity to subject myself to further scrutiny and do some in-depth soul-searching and film studies-style analysis.

The film tugged hard on my heartstrings and taunted my tear ducts, and a lot of that is to do with the use of cinema language and filmic devices. The acting performances elicit empathy and the editing and music combine to make the viewer really feel the anguish of the characters (most crucially, Emma Thompson's P.L. Travers).

Saving Mr. Banks is a manipulative movie that plays the audience like a cheap piano. It knows what keys to push - Thomas Newman's score is none-too subtle, the melodramatic narrative beats tally up as you'd expect them to, and the juxtaposition between Travers' present day perturbations and her childhood traumas creates heightened emotional meaning and poignancy.

Mix it all up with affectionate nods to Uncle Walt and Disney heritage, and you've got a sure-fire formula for a box office hit that hits cinemagoers in the feels while simultaneously making them smile. You can approach this cynically but I want to be very clear about this - manipulative movies are not a 'bad' thing, and I loved Saving Mr. Banks, even though I comprehend how it controlled me like a second-hand keyboard.

Art is supposed to move people and stimulate emotional and intellectual responses. Explicitly using filmmaking techniques to manage the audience's reaction is the moviemaker's goal, so I don't think it's necessarily right to beat down on movies that do flagrantly attempt to manage (or cognitively manhandle) audiences.

This is, in fact, most movies, and to produce a motion picture that doesn't operate in such fashion is a challenge that requires a particular affected style of filmmaking running completely counter to convention. That's a worthy endeavour and it makes a refreshing change to experience films that offer ambiguity and remain aloof, uninterested in engineering specific responses in the viewers' readings.

I enjoy engaging with films like that, but there isn't a 'one or the other' situation here. I don't want 'manipulation' to stand as a dirty word because 'manipulative' movies are brilliant as well and there is no 'good' and 'bad' - there are just different ways of telling cinematic stories and reaching audiences that absorb them.

I'm not pro or anti emotional manipulation in movies, and the outlook differs depending on the individual film. I'll happily surrender without resistance to, say, the sentimentalism and wonder of Spielberg and allow myself to be controlled by film language for a horror movie, even if I'm aware of their methods. I'm less likely to be passively acceptant of deliberate ploys in a chick-flick, for instance, but that's all to do with my own personality and genre preferences.

I understand exactly what the aforementioned Mr Spielberg wants audiences to feel and think when they watch E.T., and I can easily see how he uses cinematography, John Williams' score and all the other tricks of the trade to achieve it. I don't wish to revolt, though, because I love sci-fi adventure stories and I want an affecting experience that makes me feel something. If you enter every film (or anything at all for that matter) with your guard up and a cynical, sceptical mindset you're never going to have any fun.

As much as I'm an enthusiast for deeper reading, I'd always encourage that first and foremost cinemagoers enter into movies with an open heart and abandon themselves to go with the will of the movie. It's better to scrutinise and deconstruct in the aftermath, for ideally when you're watching you immerse yourself absolutely in the moment presented to you by film producers whose power you've acquiesced to.

I've already cited Spielberg as an example of a master emotive craftsman, but I want to come back to another obvious exemplary specialist in cinematic emotional engineering. Disney have got form here and the name is a by-word for sentimental stories that stick to a well-known formula and values. What audiences receive are wholesome family-friendly fairytale fantasies with happy endings that inspire laughter, crying and sing-alongs. It's a beautiful formula - one that with analytical adult eyes we can easily critique but that still resounds and did so much for us as children growing up.

Saving Mr. Banks - a Disney production about a Disney production - acts as a celebration of Disney sensibilities that, oddly enough, comes mostly from the perspective of a protagonist who's vehemently opposed to the House of Mouse. The audience gets to journey through the archetypal Disney experience through Travers' personal tale and thus we and she are transformed, even if it is only temporarily, by Magic Kingdom pixie dust and popcorn perk.

It's a glorious thing and I can buy into all that Saving Mr. Banks is pushing because of my special affinity with Walt Disney pictures (especially Mary Poppins). Both the live-action and animated features produced by the studio formed a crucial part of my formative years. I was raised, in part, by Disney movies and so the significant lure of Saving Mr. Banks is nostalgia - memories of the past and fondness for things that meant the world a long time ago before the world got a lot bigger.

"It's a Small World After All" - a musical mantra composed by the Sherman Brothers who are portrayed in Saving Mr. Banks by Jason Schwartzmann and B.J. Novak - echoes in my mind as an apt encapsulation of the essence of Disney pictures. They return spectators to the smallness and simplicity of childhood - a state of innocence, imagination and willing belief.

The inner child - the spirit that's secreted beneath the surface and all the jadedness of adult life - is discovered afresh as the movie unreels all the familiar flourishes that you've understood and appreciated since you were a little girl or little boy. New films can conjure up similar jarring sensations, but the joyous regression is felt most powerfully when you rewatch the things you grew up with. E.T., Star Wars and, indeed, Mary Poppins are just three features that inspire such nostalgia.

Looking again to the latter musical, the direct references of Saving Mr. Banks alongside its vigorous emotional manipulation and celebration of Walt Disney (played with immense charm by Tom Hanks) worked in harmony to tug my heartstrings so hard I came away with chest pangs and watery eyes. It worked on me by triggering my precious childhood memories and transported me back into the consciousness of my repressed inner child.

That's an idyllic way to experience a movie, as regressive and 'shallow' as it may be. I embrace that opportunity and believe it's essential for us as adults to cast off all our advanced intellect, critical understanding and - at least for the first viewing - enter into the spirit of the thing with the mind and eyes of a child.

Saving Mr. Banks - all syrupy Disney formulas, nostalgiagasms and spoonfuls of sugar helping medicines go down - is a potent reminder of how magical the House of Mouse was and still is for children and grown-up children. It's also the perfect love letter to Mary Poppins, Walt Disney and his studio's heritage and a stirring memento that raises and re-affirms essentials that are easily lost and forgotten in the transition to adulthood.

Embrace Saving Mr. Banks and you may be also saving your childhood.

James Clayton is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and he typed that out without using a spellchecker. He and his inner child, thus, rate nicely on Mary Poppins' tape measure. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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