Animadversion: In Disney’s image

January 12, 2014

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Sometimes touching and most times dryly witty, Saving Mr Banks fills the screen with the pleasant side of 1960’s golden age Hollywood, which includes some self-catharsis for two distinct individuals: Walt Disney and P.L. Travers.

In 1961 Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is hell-bent on getting the rights to produce Mary Poppins because of a promise he made to his daughters, even after being rejected for 20 years by its author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). Mrs Travers, far from giving the rights, can’t even stand what Walt Disney’s empire represents — cartoon entertainment (at one point she cuttingly points out to him: “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons!”). But low-on-money Mrs Travers is forced by her agent to go from London to Disney Studios, California, to negotiate the deal.

This becomes a gruelling undertaking for screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and brothers, song-writers/composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) whose script, grammar, ideas, songs and snacks she runs over like a tornado through a house!

A sharp-tongued, all around killjoy, the middle-aged Mrs Travers insists on keeping up decorum and unconditionally demands everyone address her as ‘Mrs Travers’ (she refers to everyone else in likewise fashion). Her absolute opposite is Walt Disney who insists to be on a first-name basis only. The only person she does connect with is her assigned chauffer Ralph (Paul Giamatti) who despite her snippy attitude is soft-spoken and kindly — maybe because that’s the way he was born.

P.L. Travers has a connection with Mary Poppins and the family she flies in to save: Mr Banks, the children’s father from the book, is made from the shadows of her own highly idolised, dreamer father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), who also happens to be a compulsive alcoholic.

Directed by John Lee Hancock (Blindside) written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, selling the clean wholesome image of Disney Studios and toggling between P.L. Travers’ past and present loses some steam; in fact, it comes to a point that at times Saving Mr Banks starts looking like two different movies pasted together in edit. In spite of this, the acting talent keeps things in place: Emma Thompson brings her own zing to P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks, with a slight southern accent and a twinkle in his eyes, gives us his own interpretation of Walt Disney.

Fans of Mary Poppins will love the trivia in Saving Mr Banks (from where the idea of Mary Poppins takes root, birth of the highly hummable songs to P.L. Travers’ adverse dislike of the animated penguin sequence). Those who don’t know squat about Mary Poppins have Hanks and Thompson to thank as both keep things too lively to let boredom set in.

Saving Mr Banks is far from a modern-day gem (and not the Oscar contender it presents itself as), but it’s definitely enjoyable.

Released by Walt Disney Pictures, there are scenes of death and alcoholism, but nothing that takes away the PG-13 rating.

Snowed in!

Like most fairytales, there is a princess in peril in Frozen, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest addition to its ‘princess’ fables. Adapting the Hans Christian Anderson story of a wicked Snow Queen and a courageous young girl, the story by co-directors Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris re-imagines the queen and the girl as siblings, whose power of love is enough to overcome their country’s perpetual winter. It is a novel twist, not unlike a hip motor-mouth genie, a mermaid princess who has a happy ending or a sprightly Rapunzel whose soul (and not her excessively long hair) are a source of eternal life.

Frozen is set in Arendelle, a sea-port kingdom whose king and queen share a secret: their eldest daughter, Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), is born with a power that may manifest out of control — she may turn everything into ice and snow. “Witchcraft!” — the eventual persecuting word for anyone with magical abilities, comes up much later in the movie when Elsa is old enough to take charge of the kingdom, years after her parents’ ship gets gulped by a nasty sea storm. By that time Anna (Kristen Bell), her younger spirited sister, who she accidentally hurt when they were kids, is ready for her first love.

There’s a lot of love in Frozen, some of it conventional and rudimentary to fairytales. These clichés include a horse and full-furred reindeer (there are always understanding, lovable animals in Disney animations), and the necessity of a magical creature, which in Frozen’s case is an animated snowman called Olaf (Josh Gad).

Olaf comes late in the movie (merchandise sales; toy sales and videogames are always an easier Christmas season sell if you have a magical snowman on the shelves). After the connection between the sisters is established, Anna falls in love with a too-good-to-be-true visiting prince named Hans (Santino Fontana), Elsa is forced to leave her kingdom and Anna buddies up with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a young ice trader and his reindeer Sven, to convince her to come back.

Even though Olaf’s inclusion doesn’t really make a difference in Frozen (he is often seen in a decapitated state in most scenes due to his tendency to fall apart), there is little reason to actually hate the guy. The screenplay is firmly fixed on Anna and Elsa, and the film’s okay-to-excellent musical numbers by the husband-and-wife songwriting team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

Songs pop in continuously, but one number — Do You Want to Build a Snowman? — is a particular powerhouse, as it covers the unnecessary, yet growing, distance between Anna and Elsa over the years. The music and lyrics take you back to the The Bells of Notre Dame from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The innocence is as brilliant as it is disarming; the pain of seclusion is haunting to the ears, as it is for the soul.

Of course good things don’t stay forever, and so Frozen falters when it reaches mid-point, only to pick itself up again by the end. Even though it is being branded as a classic, achieving that status and holding on to it is a challenging undertaking.

Released by Disney, Frozen is rated PG for its children-friendly scares and a lot of sibling love. — Mohammad Kamran Jawaid