Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

In 2001, Walt Disney World kicked off their latest 18-month-long celebration: “100 Years of Magic”, to commemorate what would have been Walt Disney’s 100th birthday.  Walt, of course, was born December 5th, 1901, and he passed away just ten days into his 65th birthday in 1966.  The event was held at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Then Disney-MGM Studios), and among other festivities, a new attraction opened, One Man’s Dream, a small museum where a single corridor used various props, antiques, and recreations to showcase some of the major milestones in his life, and concluded with a short biographical film about the man.  The attraction still exists today, though it was renamed Walt Disney Presents in 2017.

“Walt be with you!” “And also with you!”

See, the thing is…we Disney fans kinda fetishize Walt.

No, we’re not a cult! Stop asking!

For all intents and purposes, Walt did produce a net positive on the world.  He brought joy and laughter to millions.  his career is often highlighted by moments where he wanted to do something unheard of, no one thought it made sense, and boom! it’d be a runaway success.  Still, despite the “Uncle Walt” image he crafted for his Sunday evening television audience, the man was absolutely not without fault.  He definitely had a temper, for one.  He disliked directly complimenting his staff, often resorting to either a flat “That’ll work” or he’d tell you Eric or someone down the hall said you did a good job on that one scene you did.  He was absolutely a capitalist, so there’s that.  He pushed for his name to be front and center, at first when Disney Brothers Studio became Walt Disney Pictures, and later minimizing credit of his staff.  He hated unions, and was so convinced the 1941 studio strike was to spite him, he blamed communist influence above all else, even going so far as to naming names for Joe McCarthy at the House Un-American Activities Committee.  I’m not say he didn’t have anything against Jews, black people, or gay people, but he was definitely a product of that era, so I don’t write off those rumors completely.  Still, that doesn’t stop us fans from fawning over him, and it definitely doesn’t stop the company from glamorizing the man.

So imagine my shock when in early 2013, a peculiar trailer popped up.  One that promised a movie about Walt and his struggle with author Pamela Travers during the production of 1964’s Mary Poppins.  Like…really?  They were gonna go there?  A Disney-made movie about Disney butting heads with Travers…and she’s the protagonist?  Like…you do realize she didn’t like the guy, right?  How the hell were they gonna do this?

May I mention a movie moderating the mustachioed marvel of Marceline, Missouri, the magnificent magnus opus with the main miss Mary, and the misanthropic madam of multiple misgivings…this is Saving Mr. Banks.

The plot: In 1961, Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of the Mary Poppins book series, is not doing well financially, and her publisher begs her to consider Walt’s 20-year correspondence, begging her for the rights to turn her books into a Disney movie.  Travers, horrified that Walt (Tom Hanks) is going to turn her beloved Mary Poppins into a sugar-coated cartoon, agrees to participate in sessions with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and songwriters Robert (B. J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman), but she will not sign away the rights unless everything meets her standards.  Her no-nonsense attitude and nit-picky demands sets everyone’s teeth on edge, despite their best attempts to please her.

At the same time, Travers recalls her childhood back when she was little “Ginty” Goff (Annie Rose Buckley) in Australia with her wildly irresponsible yet childlike alcoholic of a father, Travers Goff (Collin Farrell), and recalls how that time was reflected in her books, and how that affects adult Travers during the production of the film.

How’s the writing?: The problem I have with movies that are supposedly based on true stories is A) no matter how careful you are, SOMEONE is “the bad guy”, and B) life is not narratively conveniently packaged for a ninety minute runtime.  Real life is messy, it has nuances, it has dull stretches, most importantly…life does not “end”.  Everything has fallout and consequences that do not get reflected or at least get shown incorrectly.  This movie has a significant imbalance in that respect.

What’s accurate, from what I understand, is that Travers did demand to have the sessions with the crew recorded, which are played in a brief snippet at the film’s end credits.  Travers did not want the color red in the film.  She did not like Dick van Dyke.  She hated the use of animation. 

What isn’t is many, many other things.  Her limo driver, played by Paul Giamatti, was completely fictional.  As was Walt’s abrupt visit to her home at the film’s climax.  The rights were already secured by the time she arrived in Burbank, which negates the stakes of the plot entirely.  She never cared for any of the songs.  (The biggest error I noticed was her scoffing “Poor A. A. Milne.” when tossing aside a Winnie the Pooh doll in her hotel room, when the rights to Pooh were signed that year, but the first Disney Pooh film wouldn’t premiere for five years on.) And I would even argue the worst part is the ending.

“Oh, MY thoughts? Well, if you insist…”

Back in IRL 1964, Travers showed up at the premiere and was certainly emotional during the movie…but it was due to the burning rage she had at how badly it was butchered.  She famously asked Walt to cut the animation afterward, to which Walt snuffed “Pamela, the ship has sailed”.  While by an interview in 1977, her anger cooled, she still hated the movie, and even her last will and testament forbids any more American adaptations of her books.  Yeah, one of cinema’s greatest film classics is so heavily despised by its original creator Hollywood cannot legally adapt any more of her work.  Compare that to the film, which shows Travers simply put off, even simply uncomfortable with the product, and the framing implies she’s cathartically feeling repressed feelings over her father…even though she chokes between tears to Walt, “I can’t abide cartoons!”  And to top it off…that’s where the story ends.

Yeah…this didn’t happen, either.

See, this is what I mean that life doesn’t “end”.  The movie is Travers’, and we are meant to follow her journey from vulnerable little girl who idolized and is traumatized by her father and heartbroken over his death to a full-grown woman who uses her books to process those events.  Then in comes this sly huckster from Hollywood town looking to bastardize her creation into a bouncy cartoon…and it’s trauma-inducing all over again.  We want to believe a movie as universally loved as Mary Poppins had nearly zero detractors, but that just wasn’t the case.  When the credits roll, we’re left with one of Disneydom’s most beloved cinematic masterpieces and its creator simply unhappy with the product.  There’s no scene with that “ship has sailed” discussion, which would have perfectly matched Hanks’ depiction of Walt.  There’s no further scenes of her stewing in vitriol, no implication that she took any retributive acts against Disney to prevent further screwing up her I.P., nothing.  And ultimately, you have a movie fundamentally at odds with its finale: we get a cinematic gem, beloved by millions, but our heroine’s concerns are validated, even though we’re also supposed to love Walt, too.

If this were a fictional story, I might have had an easier time processing this.  Walt would have been shaded a tad more villainous, or Travers would learned a lesson her work’s integrity was more important than money, or this fictional film they worked so hard on might have gotten some public blowback for being too cute…but none of those can happen in a Disney movie about Dear Uncle Walt about the beloved Mary Poppins movie starring the famously critical-but-really-just-damaged Pamela Travers.  The problem is that history didn’t go that way and yet all three narrative arcs have to be served positively.

Does it give the feels?: It truly depends on who you are.  There are absolutely touches here and there highly documented from with the Disney company that Disnerds like me will:

“Oh! Oh-oh-oh! I recognize that! That’s a thing I remember!”

…do that to.  Walt loved “Feed the Birds”.  He tells Dick “That’ll work”.  Hanks wears Walt’s Smoke Tree Ranch ties.  The act of Walt handling out pre-signed autographs at Disneyland was definitely a thing.  You’ll see Disneyland’s vintage mouse-ear balloons without the stupid bubble case around them. He references Pat Powers.  He despised being called “Mr. Disney”.  Dear Ambiguous Deity Almighty, Hanks is shown putting out cigarettes and coughing, AND when he’d hack away before entering the room, Dick even says “Man’s in the Forest!”, both a nod to Bambi and the warning alert that Walt was coming!

Disney legends Bob Gurr and Dick Sherman both admitted the replication of the studio and everything was highly nostalgic for them (Though whether that’s true or PR, we’ll never really know).  So unless you’re a Disnerd or a fan of Mad Men-era aesthetic, I can’t say.  There are definitely emotional moments, they’re frequently contradictory within its own narrative, as I showed before. 

Can your heart go out to this damaged little girl?  Yes, but you also have to reconcile that it’s the same woman who didn’t want red in the movie and acted as a sullen contrarian everywhere she went.  You can love Walt, but you definitely do see he does have an ego-centered salesman vibe about him.  You can feel for Mr. Goff, but as charming and sweet as he is to his daughters, he is temperamental, irresponsible, and a drunkard.

This movie is very much a test of patience.  There are sights and sounds that are very well done and indeed CAN be very emotional…but in the broader context of the film, they don’t play out well.

Who makes it worth it?: You’re probably expecting me to say Hanks as Walt, so let me just get that out of the way.

Tom Hanks is indeed a very good Walt.  I’d still put him a rung behind Ron Schneider from The Further Adventures of Walt’s Frozen Head, but again, as a Disney fan, I have reconcile that our Uncle Walt was not perfect.  I’ve heard he was a capitalist, an anti-semite, a misogynist, an egotist, a patriot to a fault, but I was never quite sold the “Walt the swindler” angle.  Hanks definitely leans into the charisma and likeability (I mean…it’s Tom smooing Hanks, for crying out loud.), but definitely has his frustrations, especially with Travers’ increasing list of demands.

I will say Colin Farrell is a damn delight. It would have been SO easy to make Mr. Goff a charmless moron, but his natural charisma depicts a natural father, playful and nurturing to his daughters. At the same time, it’s terrifying to see him botch his career and marriage over and over with immature outbursts and his drinking that only makes him worse.

Novak and Schwartzman as Bob and Dick are immaculate. Enthusiastic, inherently musical, yet perfectly encapsulate why Walt called them “The boys”.

Best quality provided: Like I said, I’m a Disnerd, so I’m bolting upright every time a esoteric reference is implied. I mean, they went so far out of their way to measure Hanks’ mustache to make sure it was the exact size as Walt’s. Yet they still forbade depicting Walt smoking, something Walt himself went out of his way to make sure they did. And yes, he even does the two finger point.

Like I said. Nerd.

What could have been improved: As fascinating as the behind-the-scenes drama of Mary Poppins is, the disputes between Travers and Disney work better as trivia than a plot. I didn’t want a Disney movie about how Disney heroically saved Mary Poppins from mean ol’ Mrs. Travers…but the flip side doesn’t work either.

I’m also unsure if the flashbacks help or hurt the story. If true, it still feels cumbersome. It feels too narratively contrived, that the whole reason she was an uptight shrew to everyone around her was because of some unresolved dadduly issues. Plus, no matter how you spin it, no matter how much you like Walt’s speech at the end, it’s too neat. Like, sixty years of repressed guilt gets “solved” because a Hollywood producer (even if it is Walt) begs one last time to use her books to his own design, and make it the very thing she clearly set out to avoid? If anyone won here, it sure wasn’t Travers.

Even those few scenes where she cuddles with and later sobs in front of the giant Mickey Mouse plush feel cheap. It’s clear symbolism: her giving into the smiling, friendly, if slightly doofy image of the company, and her walls crumble…no. It feels amateurish. Hackneyed, really.

Verdict: I had misgivings about this one from the first trailer and I regret to say my fears were justified, just not in ways I really expected right away. I was surprised they showed Walt as this flawed, slightly manipulative salesman, but it didn’t do them many favors. We’re still stuck with a movie where we’re supposed to cheer on three opposing forces: Walt and his loveable staff, a movie everyone has seen and mostly love, and an underdog, however nasty, trying to preserve her creation’s integrity. I give this movie 5 anachronistic teddy bears out of 10.

I need a spoonful of sugar to help this movie go down.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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