by Tony Dayoub
Sometimes, the cycle of a film's reception seems to run from praise to backlash and back again even before the movie is released. Such is the fate of Saving Mr. Banks, a charmer of a movie that is also a surprisingly well constructed story about Walt Disney's pursuit for the rights to adapt Mary Poppins from her skeptical author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). Unsurprisingly, most of the pushback stems from the rapacious corporatism many accuse the Disney company of in general and its need to buff up their founder's image to get more specific. I point you to a video by author and occasional movie critic Harlan Ellison for that take on the film, because no one can express it quite as well as he does and because I don't necessarily disagree. Let's just say that yes, Saving Mr. Banks is as much a fairy tale as Disney's animated product tends to be. But I still found it to be a moving film worth visiting and revisiting in the future.
Rather than see Saving Mr. Banks as an idealized biopic celebrating an avuncular Uncle Walt that probably never existed, its title pointed me elsewhere. Embedded in the film is a parallel storyline set in turn of the century Australia that gives us some backstory on Travers and her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell). A dreamer who likely inspired the uptight Travers' more whimsical side, her dad at first seems just a bit irresponsible, flighty, but always looking to new horizons. When the family moves to a tiny, remote house in the country, the dread felt by Travers' mom (Ruth Wilson) is seemingly matched by her dad's excitement. "Who wants to share a room?" he asks his daughters in a manic rise of his voice as they run up the hill to their new abode. We soon learn that this is an example of the practiced spin of an irresponsible alcoholic.
In this way, I couldn't help but be reminded of Elia Kazan's first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). A lovely but dark film, it also features a bright young girl whose coming-of-age gives her new perspective on her own father's alcoholism and inability to care for his family as a result. Saving Mr. Banks is as enlightening a movie as Kazan's in that it is one of the most heartrending yet accurate portrayals of the effect unchecked alcoholism can have on the family members who it touches. And as its title suggests, the film is primarily about Travers' unrelenting effort to preserve the soul of the one character in her story who motivated its writing in the first place, Mary Poppins' Mr. Banks, a sort of corrective version of her disappointing dad.
Now one can choose to see the way Saving Mr. Banks manipulates its audience into siding with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his staff (Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman) by depicting them as artists and fantasists committed to creating a safe world of wonder for children. Hanks, in particular, succeeds in giving Disney a kind of firm earnestness and congeniality that belies some of the more worrisome stories we've heard about what it was really like to work underneath the autocratic Uncle Walt, first-name basis or not. The rest of the Disney employees from the Sherman Brothers on down to Travers' driver (Paul Giamatti) all have their secret pain—one has a bum leg because of a war injury, another a disabled child—all meant to arouse our sympathies, while Thompson sits there behaving haughtily doing the kinds of things that annoy the general public: correcting grammar; refusing to be addressed by her first name; criticizing AMERICANS (call the cops)!
But the truth is that when I left the theater, I didn't find myself thinking, "Oh thank Uncle Walt for convincing that castrating bitch, P.L. Travers, to share her creation with the world and all of her children." I thought, ".L. Travers is a formidable woman that stood up to the powerful Walt Disney and his quite convincing crew of seven dwarfs for as long as was humanly possible." And if Travers did cave on letting Disney throw some cartoons into Mary Poppins—one of the initial precepts she had set out to preserve the dark reality she envisioned as an undercurrent of her story—then at least she was able to succeed at one thing. She paid her respects to both her flawed father and the special savior in her life who inspired Mary Poppins. Saving Mr. Banks may not be the unvarnished truth its critics want it to be, but it's a film about how a creator must let go of her trauma in order to fully realize her work and herself. And that's more emotionally rich and honest than I ever expected from a Disney film.