Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. That’s almost enough to sell the picture by itself, isn’t it? Who but Hanks can one imagine in the role?
Hanks isn’t the spitting image of Disney: His face is a bit broader, and Disney had a more prominent nose. Hanks is squintier, too, and tends to knit his brows, where Disney’s brows often levitated well above his eyes.
Yet Hanks’s genial, beloved public persona — the most trusted man in America, according to a rather head-scratching recent poll — may be the nearest analogy we have to Uncle Walt in his day. Disney was Mickey Mouse; Hanks was (and is) Pixar’s Woody.
At 57, Hanks is almost the right age to play Disney at 60, when he finally met Pamela L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins. Disney had been courting her for two decades for film rights to her beloved heroine — unsuccessfully until then, since Travers very much did not want to see Mary Poppins become the sort of heroine that Disney would undoubtedly make her, and did.
And who but Emma Thompson could play P. L. Travers? Thompson is not only a children’s author in her own right, but lovingly adapted Christianna Brand’s stories of a magical nanny named Nurse Matilda as the Nanny McPhee movies. Nurse Matilda, or Nanny McPhee, had perhaps more in common with the stern literary Mary Poppins (“the very enemy of whimsy and sentiment,” Thompson’s Travers insists) than either had with the singing protagonist of Disney’s beloved musical.
Hanks’ Disney is a teddy bear; Thompson’s Travers is a porcupine. They go together like apple pie and, oh, liver and onions. He lights up the charm, part aw-shucks folksiness, part schmoozing Hollywood con man. She refuses utterly to be charmed. Indeed, almost every word out of everyone’s mouth is fresh confirmation of all her worst fears, provoking new irritation, disparaging remarks and dire predictions about the futility of the whole prospect of a Disney adaptation — an adaptation that Travers, who is near to broke, needs as much as anyone.
Hanks and Thompson’s beguiling performances and nearly perfect non-chemistry are the saving grace at the heart of Saving Mr. Banks. Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side; The Rookie), it’s an enjoyable serving of Hollywood schmaltz that manages to transcend a potentially queasy premise.
Hollywood loves self-congratulatory movies about Hollywood, as well as sentimental movies like Finding Neverland and Becoming Jane that fictionalize the creative process, planting the seeds of the author’s later work in the dreams and tears of youth. This time, though, there’s a catch.
Saving Mr. Banks is history written by the winner: a Disney movie that regales us with just how ridiculously hard a prickly, capricious British authoress made it for our Uncle Walt to bring us Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in one of the most beloved family films of all time.
Walt won that war of wills and Disneyfied Mary Poppins; now, adding insult to injury, he’s Disneyfied her creator, playing her abrasive personality for laughs as well as making her more conventional than she seems to have been. Travers has become a ridiculous creature of fun, just as she feared Mary Poppins would be. The closer Saving Mr. Banks is to history, which I suspect is not very, the more deeply it would doubtless have enraged Travers.
Perhaps if you love Disney’s Mary Poppins, you can shake your head indulgently at Travers’ misguided efforts to thwart the cinematic apotheosis of her magical nanny: Some people just don’t know what’s good for them. I confess I’ve never fallen under Mary Poppins’ spell, either on the screen or on the page, but for what it’s worth, my sympathies are rather more with Travers than with Disney.
Here’s how I see it: What makes Saving Mr. Banks different from Finding Neverland and Becoming Jane is that it’s precisely about the tendency of Hollywood in general and Disney in particular to reshape everything they touch, repackaging it into a palatable, reassuring something the masses want, or what the filmmakers think they want, instead of what it really is.
“Maybe not in life, but in imagination” is how Disney, in a crucial scene toward the end, describes the sort of “salvation” stories offer. He suspects Travers’ own stories are all about trying to “save” a Mr. Banks in her own life, not in life, but in imagination. Whatever liberties have been taken, at least the film confesses that’s what storytellers do.
Travers feels strongly that magical nannies should prepare children to face up to the realities of life and disapproves of leading children down the garden path of whimsy and sentiment. On the other hand, the realities of life do not include magical nannies, but they do include whimsy and sentiment. Wounded souls find respite from this vale of tears in different ways. Some turn to comforting, cheery tales like Disney’s Mary Poppins; Travers turned a different way, but the tenacity with which we cling to our preferred narratives, whatever they are, tells the same story.
In flashbacks, we meet Colin Farrell as the adoring, adored father of a young girl (Annie Rose Buckley) who will grow up to be the creator of Mary Poppins. At first, he seems idealized, even when signs of stress and weakness surface; but, of course, all children idealize their parents when they are young. The back story’s twists and turns, which verge unexpectedly dark, lay the emotional groundwork for the main story.
The soul of Mary Poppins is the sparkling soundtrack, and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak are splendid as the Sherman brothers, banging out the tunes all in more or less finished form, Most of the best-loved lines are here, including the surprising Christian iconography of Feed the Birds: “All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles / Look down as she sells her wares / Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling / Each time someone shows that he cares.”
Paul Giamatti, of all people, brings a surprising ingenuousness to a stock character, the unassuming salt-of-the-earth chauffeur. In a small role, Michelle Arthur is hilarious as a Disney employee named Polly who embodies the soul of Minnie Mouse.
Scratch the surface, and Saving Mr. Banks is less self-celebratory than it might appear. Under Hanks’ twinkle and charm is something hard and even selfish, something only interested in making his movie his way. (It doesn’t quite show him smoking, something the real Disney was careful never to do in public, but we do see him hastily put down an unlit cigarette with a remark about not wanting to be a bad role model to children.)
Whatever else it does, the movie allows Travers to have her say. Practically everything Travers accuses Disney of wanting to do to her creation is precisely what we know he actually did.
I don’t know how many people will choose to see Saving Mr. Banks as a veiled confession or self-indictment — the story (as Disney himself puts it in order to deny the suggestion) of a Hollywood King Midas in whose kingdom Travers’ heroine is just another brick — but it’s certainly a valid approach.
Caveat Spectator: Scenes of heavy drinking; disturbing family scenes; an attempted suicide; limited profanity and cursing. Teens and up.