For viewers inclined toward anti-corporate sentiment – which is probably more than a few of you these days – Saving Mr. Banks will be an uphill climb from the start. The story itself doesn’t set off too many red flags: P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of the novel on which Mary Poppins was based, comes to Hollywood to oversee the adaptation of her beloved tome into a Disney movie. There, she proceeds to drive everyone crazy with her demands that the film adhere perfectly to the book. Even Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) gets involved, bending over backwards to please the eccentric British author in order to get her sign over the film rights.
Sounds simple and pleasing enough, except for the dark cloud of opportunism that hangs over the entire picture. Produced by the Walt Disney Company, the film seems driven by the single purpose of promoting the Disney brand. To do this, the filmmakers set Travers up as a straw man (or woman, in this case) who despises everything Disney stands for at the start who then reluctantly comes around to Disney’s charms. Yes, she is reticent to give the studio the rights to her book, lest they turn her rather personal story into something garish or silly, but she also seems put off by all that Disney represents; indeed, she is physically disgusted with the room full of stuffed animals that have been placed in her Los Angeles hotel room. She clashes heartily with Walt Disney himself, who seems genuinely surprised to have met someone who does not immediately succumb to his charms.
But then, of course, the straw man is swiftly knocked down by amusement park rides and cartoon characters. In fact, it is nothing simpler than a ride on a carousel that convinces her not only to ease up on the poor screenwriters (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak) whom she has been terrorizing with her demands but also to help her overcome the trauma of her youth, in which she witnessed her father (Colin Farrell) drink himself into an early grave. That must be one awesome carousel.
So as we watch this prototypical American – the self-made Disney – turn an old British sourpuss into a fully functioning human being (shades of Pinocchio?), we are expected to end up loving Disney as much as Travers does. There are other narrative threads, to be sure; half of the film is flashback to Travers’ childhood in Australia. But although director John Lee Hancock tries to convince us it is really a dramatic and inspiring story of a middle-aged artist dealing with her past, the film can’t – and doesn’t really try to – serve two masters. Commercialism wins in the end, and it’s more than a little disconcerting that the film essentially does to Travers’ story – turn it into a cloying, sentimental fable – what she did not want done to her novel.
Of course, the blatant corporate propaganda would be easier to forgive if the movie were any good. But this devotion to promoting the Disney brand above all else also wreaks havoc on the dramatic impact of the story. Are we really to believe that Travers changed her mind about Disney because of a merry-go-round? That the filmmakers thought this would suffice as a turning point speaks to how little they bothered to understand her character.
But I was also struck by the stunt casting of Tom Hanks, America’s favorite everyman for three decades now, in the role of Disney. I don’t know that much about Walt Disney, but I do know that a man who built one of the largest multinational mass media corporations in history was probably not an “everyman.” Even putting aside the accusations of anti-Semitism and racism that have plagued his legacy but go unremarked upon here, it’s nearly impossible for Hanks to create the necessary suspension of disbelief in playing such a legendary figure. Had he gone deeper and darker, I’m sure Hanks could have come up with an interesting take on the character – he’s too good of an actor not to. But that’s not why he was chosen: Disney needed America’s most well-liked actor to create a simplistic and sympathetic portrait of what was, at best, a very complicated man.
In considering the film, however, it is best to focus on these failures of narrative – not on the more insidious underlying purpose. Otherwise, Saving Mr. Banks would simply fall at the end of a very long list of Hollywood films that function as shameless promotional tools for the industry. In fact, this is usually a recipe for some love from the Academy, and you don’t have to go back too far to find examples. Just look at the last two Best Picture winners: The Artist was a gushing love letter to the industry’s simpler, bygone era, while Argo gave it credit for solving one of the country’s worst hostage situations in recent memory. But those films never let the self-promotional subtext rise to the surface; they simultaneously functioned both as industry propaganda and fully-engaging narratives. Saving Mr. Banks, on the other hand, never manages to convince us it is interested in saving anything more than itself.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether