Walt Disney was one of the most important figures in the history of motion pictures, a visionary storyteller, entertainer, and entrepreneur. He also allied himself with anti-Semitic organizations, extended a warm Hollywood welcome to Leni Riefenstahl, began a tradition of worker exploitation that persists in his organization today, and was a key instigator in the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. In other words, he was a man of contradictions, and those contradictions could make for a juicy and rich biopic. Saving Mr. Banks is not that biopic. Instead, it is the story of a Magic Mogul who helped a sad woman overcome her Daddy Issues, and, while they’re at it, of how a multinational corporation crushed an idiosyncratic artist (for her own good!). It also may be the most self-congratulatory bit of hagiography Hollywood has ever produced, and that’s saying something.
The film tells the (sorta) true story of Disney’s lengthy attempt to bring Mary Poppins to the screen, courting author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) for the better part of two decades, ultimately promising her full collaboration and complete creative control. The focus is on Travers’ two-week exploratory trip to the studio, where a script has been written, songs have been composed, and designs have been prepared, in spite of the fact that she has not yet signed over the rights. Her demands are outrageous and inflexible; “Mary Poppins and the Bankses,” she tells Disney, are “like family to me.”
And the movie takes that quite literally, intercutting throughout the narrative flashbacks to her childhood in Australia, where her free-spirited, loving, boozy father doted on her and, indirectly, inspired the entire tale. The flashback timeline is far more prevalent in the film than the ads would lead you to believe (I certainly wasn’t running a stopwatch, but I’d clock it at a good 40 percent of the running time), and are ultimately a waste; like Finding Neverland and other “origin stories,” the entire thread seems basically to exist for the moment when a Mary Poppins-like figure appears and shakes her umbrella and opens her giant bag, so we can all snap our fingers and say, “Oh, that’s where that came from.” Who cares?
But the quest for P.L. Travers’ Rosebud isn’t what’s most irritating about Saving Mr. Banks; it’s the angelic portrayal of Walt Disney, in a film produced by, hey wouldn’t ya know it, the Walt Disney Company. Poor Tom Hanks, who is something of a go-to guy for bringing real Everymen to fictionalized life, can’t make head nor tail of Mr. Disney — presumably since the flaccid script and legacy-guarding suits who commissioned it won’t allow him to give the character any of the nuances that would make him interesting. We first see him reenacting Disney’s intros to his Wonderful World of Disney TV shows, and the portrayal seldom has more dimension than the man himself let on in them.
The director is John Lee Hancock, who helmed The Blind Side, and his work here is just as sophisticated and subtle as you’d expect from the creator of that mess. He inexplicably attempts to build suspense out of this signing-over-the-rights business, as if anyone is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, Will she sign it? (Yes, because if she didn’t, there wouldn’t have been a Mary Poppins movie, and none of us would be here, and don’t get me started wishing for that.) When we finally come to a conclusion, the psychology is insultingly simple, the turnaround — c’mon, you knew there was a turnaround — mighty speedy (she actually proclaims “Enough!” before she signs), and the resolution ignores much of the actual fallout of the movie at the service of a happy ending that is straight out of, well, Disney.
There are commendable elements: the near-flawless leading performance by Emma Thompson (and there are precious few of those to go around these days); the spirited supporting turns of Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak; the fish-out-of-water jokes that pepper the first act. But it’s all just kind of… well, for lack of a better word, it’s gross. Look, I think my bosses are pretty swell, but if I went off and wrote a book about how brilliant and sensitive they are, it’d smell fishy to everyone. And that’s what Saving Mr. Banks amounts to. It’s hard to know what Disney’s trying harder to sell: a sanitized, propagandistic portrait of its fearless leader, or Mary Poppins Blu-rays (in a wildly coincidental bit of timing, the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray just hit shelves). As I’ve said, the materials are out there for a great Walt Disney biopic. But they sure as hell shouldn’t let Walt Disney Pictures make it.