“SAVING MR. BANKS” is an entertaining, slick, hollow, Hollywood glamorization of Disney by Disney. We’ve had in the recent past, a number of examples where brilliant actors inhabited the skins of real people to offer us well crafted insights into the people and the forces that moulded them (think Meryl Streep as Thatcher or Julia Child and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles etc.). But in “Saving Mr. Banks” director John Lee Hancock (“the Blind Side”) offers us a strange reverse in casting philosophy: Walt Disney, who must have been a fascinating man – part genius, part tyrant – is here transformed into Tom Hanks, dripping Hanks-ean charm; that spoonful of sugar that let’s the schmaltz go down wonderfully smoothly.
The movie is about the courtship by Walt of P.L.Travers, who Walt insists on calling Pamela (a marvelous Emma Thompson). P.L Travers is of course the Australian author of “Mary Poppins”, a woman who, embittered by the traumas of her past, transformed herself into a ‘proper’ British lady. She was a hard nut to crack – a tut-tutting, unsmiling, antagonistic opponent of Walt’s singing dancing vision of her book – and, as envisaged by writers, Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, an all round source of mirth.
The dramatic heart of the movie centers around a battle of wills – Walt’s (let’s just say Tom’s) folksy charm combined with the sweet innocence of the writers – brothers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak…mainly TV roles and a small part in “Inglorious Basterds” and Jason Schwartzman) and Bradley Whitford (Don DaGradi) and the almost saintly goodness of her driver Ralph (the always watchable Paul Giamatti). Against all this earnest sweetness was pitted her steely, unrelenting sourness.
It’s a battle that is accurate (the movie plays us recordings of the real P.L.Travers complaining about the script to Disney). But it’s presented with such high gloss, honeyed, serio-comic Disney-esque showmanship, that while it delivers great charm and entertainment, not for a minute does it offer a trace of fictional, artistic credibility. This battle of wills (he’s the honey, she’s the medicine) is played out against Travers’ past – her gritty childhood in rural Australia. The young P.L.Travers (Annie Rose Buckley) was in awe of her father – a charming, loving, and generally irresponsible drunk (Colin Farrel). He stimulated her imagination and a desire to escape into worlds of fantasy, which for him, was a world of drink. The mode of escape for her long-suffering mother (Ruth Wilson) was an attempt at suicide.
And for P.L Travers, whose real name was Pamela Goff, escape meant the transformation of her life – her memories and the demons they contained – into the Mary Poppins story and into the creation of an entirely faked persona, that of the British Mrs. Travers (her father’s first name). It is the arrival of the brisk, no-nonsense Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths of “Six Feet Under”) into their harsh lives that, Director Hancock hammers home, crystalizes itself into the Mary Poppins character.
In the end, guided by Walt’s own traumatic back story, Pamela’s acceptance that she cannot escape her memories, her real self, results in her ability to finally release her creation into the hands of another. Mary Poppins is allowed to pass from the hands of one artist into the hands of another.
“Saving Mr. Banks” skirts on some interesting themes: the protective relationship of authors with their creations (Disney muses about his refusal to sell-out when as a young man, a well-connected financier tried to tempt him out of Mickey Mouse); the idea of art and the imagination not as escape but as a way of interpreting and making sense of reality (one of the reasons why she resists Disney’s version of her book so strenuously was that it wasn’t the reality she was addressing in the book); and indeed, the need to accept who you are – not escape into who you construct yourself as being.
But it merely skirts on these themes. This is after all a Disney movie – lovely, delicious sugary froth where all things end well and the sunsets are ever golden. For me it was a lovely, empty-caloried, fattening way to end the year. And we need a few empty, non-alcoholic calories from time to time.