“Saving Mr. Banks” is the ultra-Disneyfied version of the tale of Walt Disney convincing a hostile P.L. Travers to let him make a film of her “Mary Poppins” books.
No one has to be told what actually happened. It’s hardly a “spoiler.”
No one has to be told either what anyone means who uses the word “Disneyfication” or one of its variants. It means that scariness exists only to take a back seat to the cutesy, and all drama is resolved with teary-eyed sentimental manipulation. The only thing that stops infantilism from reigning supreme is that profitability takes precedence.
So let me level with you here, movie lover to movie lover: “Saving Mr. Banks” is consummately professional show business, Disney division. You’ll laugh when it wants you to laugh. You’ll mist up when it wants you to mist up. And, when it ends, you’ll get a vaguely convincing glimpse of how the human imagination triumphs over the unavoidable pains of living and family.
You’ll walk out into the parking lot feeling well-served, however manipulated and lacking in deeper edification.
That’s because you can trust the sentimentality of the tale and the talents of the people making it. What you can’t begin to trust is either the tale itself or its corporate teller.
That teller is Disney Studios, indulging in a bit of unusual corporate narcissism by telling you a tale of how its literally irresistible founder brilliantly browbeat Travers into letting him make “Mary Poppins.” (Which, it just so happens, became one of the most beloved and successful movies old Uncle Walt ever made. We’d never have seen this movie if it had tanked like the fabled 2012 Disney failure “John Carter.”)
Thank heaven, though, that “Saving Mr. Banks” is about so much more than the contentious relationship between the solidly middle American film genius/mogul and the crusty British author who was nothing, if not dubious, of everything about Hollywood, not least Disney and his “silly cartoons.”
Einstein once famously said that God does not play dice with the universe. Disney Studios doesn’t play dice with movies about its founder, either. They got Tom Hanks to play him, brisk brush mustache and all. And they got the great Emma Thompson to play Pamela Travers.
And that’s it, really. Game, set, match, as the tennis folk might say. With all the parrying by two such diabolically attractive movie professionals in front of the camera, you’re on the movie’s side through thick, thicker and almost-insufferable thickest. (There is no thin here, believe me.)
That’s because the movie really lays it on, but so what, when it’s primarily played by such performers as these?
And now an ever-so-brief word from the real world of film history. Travers wasn’t quite the clueless, unsophisticated and cloistered author that the movie makes her out to be. She’d done some acting and had a rudimentary grasp of theater and dramaturgy.
Nor, as this movie has it, did their relationship end with the family classic all hunky-dory from which mutual appreciation ensued. Travers often told people throughout her life how hard done by she’d always felt by the experience.
But it is here, though, that “Saving Mr. Banks” saves itself and hauls its own bacon out of the fire. What the movie is really about is not what a dandy salesman and storyteller Disney was. It is, through flashbacks, about how Travers grew up in Australia, the adorable imaginative daughter of an alcoholic and ailing banker (Colin Farrell).
It wasn’t Disney’s silly cartoon animals and the jaunty songs of the Sherman Brothers that truly horrified her. It was the version of Daddy in her veiled autobiographical fantasy that she needed to protect from those barbarous Californians.
It’s all Hanks and Thompson and, when they’re not around, Farrell keeping the movie on track. And when you’ve also got the likes of Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzmann and the great Paul Giamatti helping things along, nothing could go too far amiss.
So it doesn’t. You get the family movie people hope to see, with life’s terrible sadnesses Disneyfied into the omnipotently lovable universe of Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and a whole lot of “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”
As always, animation’s great prophet knew his audiences – and the profits they’d provide. His heritage continues with his standard bearers.
Saving Mr. Banks
Three stars (out of four)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford
Director: John Lee Hancock
Running time: 126 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for mature themes and disturbing images.
The Lowdown: Walt Disney has to talk author P.L. Travers into letting him make a movie of her “Mary Poppins” books.