If you read a lot of reviews for Saving Mr. Banks, I suspect there is a sentence you'll see quite a bit:
"There is a profound cynicism at the root of his, as of all, sentimentality."
That is a quote from a review of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs written by one P.L. Travers in 1938. It is a pleasing twist that 25 years later she would be made a millionaire when Disney would make one of the most successful movies of all time from her books and then generally market it as "Walt Disney's" Mary Poppins.
But she didn't just not like Snow White; she had issues with Disney's very approach to entertainment. Here's the entire paragraph in which that sentence appears:
"Oh, he's clever, this Disney! From the depths of my misanthropy I admit it. Set a rabbit weeping, reveal a heart of pity beneath the tortoise shell, trump up a good deed for the adder and kind thoughts for the stoat and you have the password to the modern heart. And Disney knows it. The very pith of his secret is the enlargement of the animal world and a corresponding deflation of all human values. There is a profound cynicism at the root of his, as of all, sentimentality."
To me, reading that and thinking of P.L. Travers and Walt Disney eventually beginning a nearly 20-year negotiation that resulted in Mary Poppins, there seems a great story of battling ideas about art, creativity, the world, and everything else. But while Saving Mr. Banks tells a story of the end of that process, that is not the movie that has been made.
After I screened the movie, a friend asked via text what I'd thought of it, and in three reply texts I expressed my mixed feelings.
Text #1: "Struggling with it now. As a piece of light comic psychological exploration it is quite good."
It is good. The screenplay from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith is tight and witty. It shows why, in 2011, it made the Black List, an annual list of the best screenplays not in production. The direction from John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Blind Side) lavishes in the period elements without straying into fetish and lets the performances shine.
The performances do shine. Emma Thompson is exquisite as Travers. She conveys a complete human being as she stands up to Walt Disney, something few people did—and then when the script asks for it, shows us the pain her troubled childhood still causes, without chewing the scenery.
While I don't think Tom Hanks sounds anything like Walt Disney (despite repeated mentions of how hard he worked with a dialect coach), he captures the truth of our collective sense of the man. Two scenes in particular would be the best he'd done in years if the last 20 minutes of Captain Phillips weren't already in theaters. That, for me, was the biggest concern on hearing that The Walt Disney Company was producing the first mainstream movie to depict Walt Disney the man—could anything other than cloying hagiography result?
© Walt Disney Pictures
Tom Hanks's Walt Disney is not a warts-and-all character. He's never shown being deceptive or swearing or even angry beyond some exasperation. He expresses commitment to his family (who are never shown as anything other than photos on his office wall) and we are expected to just accept his basic decency. This is not a movie that needs to address race and gender politics at the studio or his issues relating to labor and Communism—and so they are, with a sigh I'm sure, not brought up at all. While he is never seen to smoke on screen, there are hints that having done so his entire life is what will kill him in just a few years. More than a human character, in the end, the Walt Disney of Saving Mr. Banks is just shown to be a decent hands-on studio head. These are confines within which Hanks does a fabulous job.
Two other performances are worthy of mention and are prominent in the marketing. Colin Farrell turns in another nice supporting performance (he generally seems to excel as a supporting character actor more than as a dashing leading man) as the alcoholic but idolized father of young Helen Goff (who would eventually take the stage name of P.L. Travers) on the Australian frontier. And young Helen Goff herself is a nice bit of child acting by Annie Rose Buckley.
Ostensibly, Saving Mr. Banks is providing context to the film Mary Poppins, showing us the issues involved in its making and how the characters relate to the author. If you take only the context provided by the movie, it is a very good movie.
Walt Disney just wants to make the movie he promised his daughters he'd make, entertaining people in the way he knows how. But he runs into an obstruction in the form of P.L. Travers who, understandably, feels great ownership of her work and is inflexible because she hasn't yet dealt with the psychoemotional issues she unwittingly buried in those stories. With the help of a well-timed Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) song, she finally comes to some terms with how childhood trauma wasn't all her fault, and can allow all of us to experience the joy of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins.
But that leads to...
Text #2: "As an exploration of P.L. Travers it is quite insulting."
With some time since writing that text, I might soften it a bit, but continued consideration of Saving Mr. Banks does lead me to feel that it treats the person of P.L. Travers shabbily.
The film is quite sympathetic to her childhood, sharing with us some of the difficulties she had as a child in Australia: that she loved her father very much but watched him as he struggled to provide for the family from within the grip of alcoholism. That this formed, somewhat subconsciously, the content of the Mary Poppins novels and is a large part of what made it so hard for her to give up total ownership.
All of this may be essentially true (though certain childhood incidents have also been heightened for the movie), but Saving Mr. Banks engages P.L. Travers on only this level. The film is not at all sympathetic to, and completely ignores, her existence as a complicated adult woman with an artistic context. And that is what seems insulting; to write her off as little more than a bundle of childhood scar tissue so damaged that she can barely look at a pear 55 years after having been given a strong symbolic reason to distrust them.
Travers, however, by 1961 had lived a long adult life. One, no doubt, formed by her childhood but also one that had been so much broader than that. She had toured Australia as an actress (where she first took on the Pamela Lyndon Travers stage name). She emigrated to London by herself in search of literary success and ran in literary circles with such greats as Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.
She was deeply involved in the Fourth Way spiritual movement and had a deep interest in cultures and mythology, having traveled widely and spent summers in the American Southwest on American Indian reservations. Where the movie shows her living something of a spinster life while Mary Poppins is being made, snoozing on her easy chair in London, she was actually off in Japan studying Zen Buddhism.
© Walt Disney Pictures
She never married (and quite possibly was bisexual) and had her own weird relationship with children, having failed in an attempt to adopt a servant's child and eventually adopting just one of a pair of twins from an acquaintance.
In the audio recordings of her meetings with the Sherman brothers and Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), there are long discussions and disagreements on what the various characters mean, what they are, how the story is built.
I have no insights into how all of this contributed to creative differences that made making Mary Poppins so difficult. But they do suggest a basis, beyond childhood psychological trauma, for how she and Walt Disney come from completely different intellectual places. There is no hint in the movie that Travers might have better reasons for being a pain in the butt over creative issues beyond her daddy issues.
The audio tapes mentioned before still exist and include long discussions of what the characters mean to the story, the exact nature of Mary Poppins, what the story beats are. But when a section of these tapes is played over the closing credits, all we get is her being bossy about picayune details.
Of course there is no requirement that the movie shares with us some of the erotic writings and letters from her youth or delve into her sexuality or spiritual journeys. It strikes me, though, as extremely unfair that the movie never presents to us anything near the complete person that was P.L. Travers, fully engaged with the world around her. Instead, the movie just shrugs its shoulders at the audience as if to say, "Who doesn't like songs and animation, isn't she weird?" The success of Mary Poppins the movie is assumed to win any arguments as to the artistic merits.
I'm trying to avoid reviewing the movie I wish had been made instead of the movie that was made. As said, the movie made is very good within itself, and that is generally enough. It is odd though, that a movie trying to provide context works best when context is ignored.
Text #3: "And as a historical review, it is a piece of fiction."
When it comes to the eternal question of what a movie obligation is to accuracy when based on real people and events, I have little hesitation. There is no responsibility. So long as a movie is not presented as documentary, the filmmaker's first obligation is to his vision, not to history. If they want to try for historical accuracy, that's great, but if not, then that too is fine.
At no point does Saving Mr. Banks present itself as documentary filmmaking; it doesn't even make any particular claim of fictional historical fidelity. So if an audience member walks away assuming anything presented is literally true, then the fault lies with them.
© Walt Disney Pictures
Unfortunately, though, a lot of people will do that. So it seems worthwhile to call out a few items:
First, for the most part, Walt Disney wasn't there when P.L. Travers spent 10 days in Los Angeles. He met with her when she first arrived, found her difficult, and then retired to his home in Palm Springs while leaving the Sherman brothers, DaGradi, and other staff members to deal with her. The movie is trying to capture the spirit of the nearly 20-year creative back-and-forth between Disney and Travers so it has "truthiness" (to use Stephen Colbert's word), but is not particularly true as presented.
Second, so far as I know, the character of Ralph (Paul Giamatti), Traver's Disney-provided chauffeur, is entirely a creation of the movie. The addition of this character and his interactions with Travers, strike me as the movie's weakest link. It feels like they tried so hard to find parallels for every part of Mary Poppins within the real lives of these people that they needed to add a Bert character.
A bone is tossed to park history buffs. Considering that the vast majority of people who see this movie will never have been to Disneyland, and that the majority of those who have been will have no sense of the park as a historical entity, the accuracy of the presentation of 1961 Disneyland in the movie is completely irrelevant. That said, if you're interested in it, pay attention during the scene at the park and see how many clues you find that they were filming in the 2013 park (many much smaller than the fact that the carousel is in its post-1981 location).
Finally, I think the movie is most disingenous at its conclusion. It strongly mispresents how Travers felt about Mary Poppins the movie once it was complete. While in public she sometimes had nicer things to say, that never really extended into private comments—and to the end, while she was willing to see further adaptations made, she wanted to make sure none of the Disney people involved in 1961 would be involved again.
To the extent that most people are going to engage with the story or care about the historicity of the movie, Saving Mr. Banks is a fine adult film (there's really nothing in it to appeal to a younger audience). That's how I felt walking out of the theater. And regardless of what happens later, that is reason enough to see a movie. Adding an additional level of consideration makes it an even more interesting movie, but also, weakens it. Everybody should see it, though, so that I can talk about it.
- Saving Mr. Banks is a Walt Disney Pictures release.
- Wide theatrical release on Friday, December 12, 2013
- Directed by John Lee Hancock
- Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
- Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman.
- Running time: 125 minutes
- Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images
- Alex's rating: 8 out of 10