Walt Disney Pictures’ Saving Mr. Banks deals with the early production stages of Disney’s 1964 musical Mary Poppins, and it does so in a manner it presents as factual, or at least as close to factual as you can get in a narrative film. The character names correspond to real people, from Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) and film co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). The biographical details of Travers’s early life are in place, including her family’s move from Maryborough to Allora when she was just a little girl in Australia. Even some of the plot devices that might seem outlandish are based in fact, like the tape recorder Travers insisted be used during her production meetings with Disney’s staff to make sure she could exercise control and hold them to their word. The tape recorder, used in several scenes in the film, is brought out again during the closing credits, when the actual recordings from the 1961 script reading are played. This is the way things were then, the film seems to say.
Yet it’s not. The film’s story and conclusions stand opposed to what we actually know about the rest of Travers’ career, and it feels irresponsible to ignore them given the film’s not-so-subtle insistence that everything else on screen is up to snuff. It would be unfair to examine the way Saving Mr. Banks plays loosely with history if the film weren’t at pains to position itself as an accurate telling of the facts. But because it does, it’s hard to get past the film’s duplicity. Some of the changes are skirt the truth for cosmetic reasons: Disney, a chain smoker who would die of lung cancer in 1966 — just two years after the action on screen here — is only shown smoking once, in his office, and he stubs the butt out immediately when someone walks in, saying, “I never let anyone see me smoking. No need to encourage bad habits.” But more of these changes deal with Travers and her antagonistic relationship toward Disney and his adaptation of her books. The film has her brought to a moment of catharsis and small relief when she sees the final film, finally able to let go of some personal demons that have plagued her, though her support is still restrained. Yet in reality, she spent most of the time between her initial production meeting and the film’s release complaining about the adaptation, and the years afterward distancing herself from what Disney had done to her creation. How you feel about her reaction isn’t the point, either; it’s that the film so desperately works to create a version of history where Travers finds release and redemption in the big-screen version of her books that you start to wonder what makes them so desperate in the first place.
It’s not hard to see what: Disney is a legacy above all, and like all legacies, it’s devoted to maintaining and protecting the brand. A warts-and-all story about the making of Mary Poppins would likely be filled with happiness and heartache, joy and sorrow, triumph and regret, and most of all, complicated people trying to please themselves while not totally destroying others. Or at any rate, such a film would be possible. But Saving Mr. Banks feels too smooth around the edges, shorn of any but the blandest and most flimsily delivered story. You know, kind of like a lot of Disney movies.
The film’s also weakened by a treacly tone and dialogue that sees characters blurting out subtext. The screenplay, from Kelly Marcel (Fox’s TV series Terra Nova, the forthcoming 50 Shades of Gray) and Sue Smith (a variety of TV-movies in Australia), shifts between Travers’s often rocky childhood with her embittered development talks with Disney more than 50 years later. This is also where the film occasionally gets into trouble, at least under the hand of director John Lee Hancock. Cause and effect are hammered home, while childhood trauma (an alcoholic father, a depressed mother) is doesn’t feel like it actually happened to these characters, but is just a convenient way to set up future emotional crises. What’s more, the writers give Travers the troublesome habit of voicing a given scene’s subtext: when the adult Travers gets sucked into a flashback and then returns to the present, there are match shots and appropriate cuts to underscore that she feels she’s letting down the memory of her father and betraying his memory and lessons. Then, flustered, she exclaims “I’m letting him down again!” and scurries from the room. Instead of action revealing emotion, we have dialogue trumpeting it; and instead of emotion generating story, we get the same few notes played again and again, as if length were the same as drive.
Hancock, in a weird way, feels like the perfect fit for the material. His credits include The Blind Side, The Alamo, and The Rookie: two of them Disney films, all of them based on true stories but sharing a pliable relationship with the real world. And all three defined by a kind of genial plasticity, as if made with youth group devotionals in mind. There’s a sense in Saving Mr. Banks not only that not much is being risked, but that it would be impossible for things to get that complicated. After all, it’s not as if Mary Poppins didn’t get made. Hancock’s attempts to inject suspense into the debate between Travers and Disney over whether she’ll sign away the rights fall flat, so we’re left with alternating scenes of a repressed child and tormented woman, shuffling along until she gives in.
When the film works at all, it does so in fits, and almost entirely based on the persuasive powers of Thompson and Hanks. These are two of their generation’s strongest and most dependable performers, and they’re occasionally able, through brute will, to transform the film around them into something that looks and acts a lot like a real movie. They hem and haw about the direction the adaptation will take, and they manage to do a lot with smart reactions: When Thompson says she doesn’t want Mary Poppins to be one of those “silly cartoons,” Hanks bristles just enough to show he’s been really wounded that someone would dismiss the work he’d done to build his empire.
Yet it’s not enough to save the film from being a kind of warped, superficial ode to itself, mirroring the struggle for authenticity and emotion played out by the characters. Maybe that was inevitable, though. Can you blame Disney (the company) for wanting to save Disney (the man)? This isn’t a behind-the-scenes story, or something that wants to capture a myth in the making. It’s a version of that story, suffering from nagging elisions and curious changes of heart. In the late 1980s, Disney shot down a planned biopic that would’ve depicted Walt as a complicated, driven individual, as capable of grace as terror, since it didn’t track with the image they needed of a dreamer who lived larger than life. It’s a perfect bit serendipity that Saving Mr. Banks was released the same year as Escape From Tomorrow, a guerilla-style film shot on location at Disney theme parks that uses the media empire as an emblem of artifice and emptiness in a consumer-driven society. Watching Saving Mr. Banks, you get the feeling that was what Travers was railing against in the first place. Here, though, her howls fall on deaf mouse ears.