All films based on real events should have historical license. The most important thing is trying to tell the best story possible, and if that means playing a little fast and loose with the facts, then so be it. But when those facts become elastic in order to serve an agenda coated in mawkish sentiment, then history a serious consideration rather than a suggestion. In the case of Saving Mr. Banks, Disney is attempting to rewrite history in service of bolstering the argument of corporate wisdom seducing the misguided artist who doesn’t understand that synergy is the best way to catharsis. The film pays a bit of lip service to cold studio pragmatism, and Tom Hanks is at his most charming, but Saving Mr. Banks‘ warm, sunny attitude can’t mask calculating, self-congratulatory motives.
In 1961, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is an uptight, bitter author, whose crushing debt reluctantly forces her to Hollywood to consider signing over the film rights to her book, Mary Poppins, to Walt Disney (Hanks) and his company. Cutting back to 1906, we see Travers as a much happier child, nicknamed “Ginty” (Annie Rose Buckley) by her doting, effervescent father (Colin Farrell). In between constant but chronological flashbacks to her younger, happier days, Travers butts heads with Disney, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting brothers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman). Slowly, we see Travers warming to Disney’s take on her book as she faces her beloved father’s shortcomings.
Director John Lee Hancock has almost no room in his movie for subtlety. Travers goes far beyond an acerbic or rapier wit. She’s simply mean and rude, but Hancock plays every scene as if she’s just a curmudgeonly eccentric. Arguably, his approach is being used to temper the character, but the result is discordant and, more importantly, condescending. She’s as much a cartoon character as the ones she refuses to have in the Mary Poppins movie. Because her sessions with DaGradi and the Shermans were recorded, the movie actually plays some of a tape over the closing credits as if to say, “Look! She really was this way! We’re not exaggerating here!” It’s meant to be cute, but instead it feels like an excuse and an attempt to further bolster the film’s claim on reality.
Except the whitewash is so thick you can smell the paint. Even if you ignore the fact that there’s probably a reason Travers never allowed any of her other Mary Poppins books to be turned into movies, there’s still the overriding notion that Walt Disney’s folksy charm and the majesty of his studio are more powerful than quaint notions of artistic integrity. We’re supposed to believe this isn’t about a studio turning a profit; it’s about a father making a promise to his daughters to turn Mary Poppins into a movie. And by recognizing a father’s love for his children, Travers can understand that signing over the rights is really an emotional good completely removed from any financial incentive.
The film’s illusion of uplift is further cracked by Thompson’s surprisingly limited performance. Most of the time, she wears the face of someone who just smelled a heinous fart. But her atrocious attitude is supposed to be okay because the film constantly reminds us there’s just a hurt little child underneath the hard exterior, and all she needs is good, old Uncle Walt to make everything all better. For his part, Hanks does have the affability to make Walt Disney endearing, and thankfully, the actor never forgets the character’s shrewd and occasionally callous nature. But Hanks can’t break free of a script requiring him to be the stern-yet-fair father figure who will truly save the day. After all, what is the artist without the genius businessman to turn a profit?
Making movies can be magical in a unique way, but it’s also a process that can be filled with the hard realities of harsh conflict, tough compromises, and more than a few hurt feelings. The stories behind the story can make for some fascinating drama and uplifting results when a shared goal is achieved. Even if the fallout is messy, there’s still the possibility of emotionally rewarding outcomes. But this kind of conclusion has to be based on honesty, integrity, and respect. Sadly, Saving Mr. Banks is about as authentic as Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent.