Film Review: Saving Mr Banks

This film review was posted on the Orange Post on Sunday 19th January 2014.

I saw Saving Mr Banks several days ago and the sense of satisfaction that I experienced as I departed the cinema has since dissipated. The more I think of this biopic, the more problematic the film and it’s plot holes seem to be.

That’s not to say that the film is not an enjoyable look at the making of one of the most beloved children’s films ever. I am really drawn to films about the making of films. And Emma Thompson gives a powerhouse performance as the acerbic author of the Mary Poppins books, Australian born P.L. Travers. It’s just that a Disney produced biopic about a Disney produced film is not a good sign of an objective warts and all portrayal of real life events.

For instance, Walt DIsney himself was present for Travers’ arrival in Los Angeles, however he soon left California to avoid having to deal with the difficult author. In this film, Disney is a constant presence. I guess there is no use in paying Tom Hanks to be a supporting player.

Rumours persist that Walt Disney was a misogynist, a racist and an anti-Semite, with Disney’s own grandniece supporting these allegations. It’s not surprise then that Tom Hank’s portrayal of Disney is instead the caring fatherly figure that we all imagine the creator of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland to be. Fair enough that Hanks has picked up the unique walk and smoker’s cough but if you’re going to show Travers with all her irrational ideas and quirks, then why DIsney-fy Disney?

The scenes where Travers picks apart the work of composers The Sherman Brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) and writer Don Dagradi (Bradley Whitford) are great fun. Her demands such as the colour red not appearing in the film and her objections to lead actor Dick Van Dyke demonstrate how protective the author was about her famous character. However, the script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith lets the film down by never resolving these demands. Obviously Dick Van Dyke starred in Mary Poppins and no primary colours were missing in the sets and costumes so how was Travers convinced to sign off on the rights?

Travers was born in Maryborough, Queensland, and unlike the Disneyland and Disney Studios scenes which are appropriately recreated, or in the case of Disneyland simply aged back to 1961, the Australian components of the film disappointingly look like the backlot of Universal Studios (which it actually was).

The flashback structure explaining Travers’ love and dedication to her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) is a little clunky but leads to a nice revelation at the end and goes some way to explaining many of the aspects of the Mary Poppins persona, on page and on screen. Less effective is the kind hearted limo driver (Paul Giamatti) who was created for the film for Travers to warm to, and therefore defrost in the eyes of the audience.

Saving Mr Banks wears its heart on its sleeve, much like Mary Poppins the movie. Despite some great performances, you can’t help but feel that the filmmakers aren’t quite telling you everything.

Apparently P.L. Travers travelled to Ireland to adopt twins but returned with only one. This son ended up an alcoholic, and eventually met his own twin by accident. He too was an alcoholic. There’s a much more powerful film there already.

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“Jim from Neighbours” – The Busiest Actor in the World (perhaps)

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 3rd January 2012.

A long time ago, in an Erinsborough far, far away, the beloved Neighbours character Jim Robinson suffered a major heart attack and passed away on screen, right before a commercial break. This was way back in 1993, when people actually watched Neighbours and on-screen deaths were rare. Most departing characters simply moved to Brisbane to live with Scott and Charlene.

After eight long years of service to Grundy Television, Kiwi actor Alan Dale was departing the soapie, and a regular income, with his dignity intact and no embarrassing attempts at singing to speak of. Well, there was the dreadful 1989 Christmas With Your Neighbours album but being a Christmas album, it was meant to be dreadful (I hope).

Typecast as “Jim from Neighbours”, Dale found it difficult to get work in Australia. With nothing to lose, he relocated his family to the USA where there was potentially a need for fresh faces in the mature actor niche.

The rest, as they say, is pretty interesting. “Jim from Neighbours” managed to overcome the spectre of Australian typecasting and went on to appear in almost every US television show going as the “serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide.”

He was Caleb Nichol, a serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide in the hit series that introduced the world to talent vacuum Mischa Barton, The O.C. After his character was killed off with a heart attack, he went on to star in Ugly Betty as Bradford Meade, a serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide. After his character was again killed off with a heart attack, Dale went on to feature in the brain bending Lost as Charles Widmore, a serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide but no known cardiac history.

There really was no stopping “Jim from Neighbours.”

Whenever you switched on a television, there he was in a guest role. His credits are pretty much the contents of my DVD shelf. E.R., The X-Files and its spinoff The Lone Gunmen, Torchwood, Entourage, NCIS, The West Wing, JAG, Californication and The Practice have all been graced by the authoritarian and secretive presence of Alan Dale.

He was even the Vice President of the USA in seven “hours” of the rather silly but fun 24. As Jim (not from Neighbours) Prescott, an authoritarian VP with something to hide, he mistakenly placed President Palmer under house arrest, based on false evidence. Playing the third most powerful man in the world (behind the American President and Batman) may seem  an honour until you realise that two years later on the same show, Vice President Mitchell Hayworth was portrayed by Aussie ex-pat and “actor” Cameron Daddo.

Not limited to the idiot box, Dale’s career has also expanded to the silver screen. Last week, I popped the sci-fi vampire action thingy Priest into my VCR to find “Jim from Neighbours” playing his usual character, but in a silly robe, in eye popping 3D.

Most impressive to geeks everywhere, Dale was also cast in two iconic film franchises. He pops up as General Ross in the mediocre Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and plays the Romulan Praetor Hiren in the so-so Star Trek Nemesis. OK, so they weren’t the best films in the series but how many Star Trek and Indiana Jones movies have you been in?

He even has his own trading cards. That’s right, on ebay there is brisk trade in Alan Dale signature cards from his Lost, Star Trek and Indiana Jones and the Blah Blah Blah appearances.

Later this month, Dale will appear on Aussie cinema screens as Detective Isaksson in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

This year, all Australians (and New Zealanders) should celebrate the amazing career of “Jim from Neighbours” and his remarkable body of work, playing the authoritarian figure with something to hide, since shaking off the stigma of typecasting way back in 1993 when Jim Robinson of Ramsey St met his maker.