Saving Mr. Banks
Someday, an enterprising film programmer will organize a festival entirely devoted to movies about writers whose work was bowdlerized by Disney. The festival could screen Dreamchild (Lewis Carroll), Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie), and Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of P.L. Travers’ struggles with Walt Disney over his studio’s adaptation of her book Mary Poppins. In a great example of corporate synergy, the movie arrives just in time to be sold alongside 50th-anniversary DVDs and Blu-rays of Mary Poppins next year at your local Wal-Mart, which might also sell you stuffed versions of the animated penguins Travers loathed so much. From beyond the grave, Disney has his revenge on the recalcitrant and Magic-Kingdom-allergic Travers. She allowed no film sequels to Mary Poppins, but Saving Mr. Banks, brought to you by the Disney studio, works as a simplistic Disney-version prequel of sorts.
Travers (Emma Thompson) is on her uppers when her agent implores her to entertain the idea of selling Mary Poppins to Disney (Tom Hanks), who has been after the rights for twenty years. He made a promise to his daughters, he says, and he intends to keep it. Travers packs two tidy bags and grudgingly jets off to L.A., where she’s greeted by a hotel room filled with stuffed Disney characters. Here and there, Saving Mr. Banks is almost a whistle-clean Disney rewrite of Barton Fink, with Walt Disney as both studio head Jack Lipnick and the intrusive creative id Madman Mundt: Travers’ Disney-festooned room is about as disturbing as Barton’s room clogged with mosquitoes and wallpaper paste. But it’s also a smiley-face inverse — Travers’ demons and writerly quirks are destined to be gentled by good ol’ Walt’s intuitive understanding of what’s really bugging the old dame.
Director John Lee Hancock, no stranger to sentimental muck (he made The Blind Side), gives us copious elegiac flashbacks to Travers’ childhood and her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), a drunken fantasist who couldn’t hold down a job. The key to Mary Poppins and to Travers, then, is Mr. Banks, who was based on her father; once the movie’s lyricists pen a song in which Mr. Banks redeems himself by fixing a kite, Travers warms up and swallows Disney’s conception, cartoon penguins and all — at least according to this film. This complex woman, a bisexual Zen Buddhist who worked for the British Ministry of Information during World War II, is reduced to a wrinkled little girl who wants her daddy. She resists and maybe resents Disney because his brand of fantasy reminds her of Father (and was far more lucrative), but in the end, Daddy/Disney comes through, even consoling a tearful Travers at Mary Poppins’ premiere.
The movie says that pinched British artistry (actually Australian by birth, though Travers made England her home in 1924) doesn’t stand a chance against vulgar, mass-appeal, glad-handing American showmanship. Judged solely on performances, Saving Mr. Banks is sometimes amusing, if you willfully forget the context; Hanks’ Disney is an amiable yarn-spinner who won’t let his staff refer to him as anything but Walt, and Thompson’s Travers has the sharp wit of the terminally disappointed. They’re playing two vastly disparate icons, though the writing doesn’t help them transcend stereotype — the affable American man who has to defrost the prickly British lady is a trope pretty much as old as cinema. Ultimately the movie, despite its focus on Travers and her sour-faced childhood issues, is a warm tribute to and embrace of the Disneyfication process.
Ol’ Walt knows exactly how to melt Travers: he tells her he can make millions of people all over the world love her father. This, of course, comes at the price of nonsensical ditties and a dance number with penguins and Dick Van Dyke uncorking the worst Cockney accent ever recorded for posterity. It also leads, years later, to a movie that depicts Travers’ daddy as a useless drunk who almost drove her mother to suicide and who finished his time spitting blood in a lonely bedroom. Travers, who died in 1996, would certainly not have cherished seeing her father’s diseased guts laid out for sentimental scrutiny this way, especially not in the service of explaining to audiences why Disney’s triumph over Travers benefited the world and her father’s memory. In real life, Travers hated what Disney did to her creation, and she would have hated what his studio has now done to her.