Tom Hanks does Walt Disney while Emma Thompson steals the show in Saving Mr Banks, a film that’s ‘a damn sight better than it could have been’, says MacDara Conroy
There’s a strange-looking tie pin that Tom Hanks’ Walt Disney wears throughout Saving Mr Banks, a glossy adaptation of the tumultuous production of 1964’s Mary Poppins. It’s not commented upon at all in the film, though some basic internet research makes it out to be the logo of Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, a favoured holiday spot of the young Walt. Yet being aware of his alleged reputation for antisemitism (not an uncommon trait among America’s executive class in the years before the Holocaust, it must be said) I might be forgiven for suspecting it was some occult rune betraying dodgy sympathies. It doesn’t help matters when Disney – ‘Walt’ to friends and employees alike, as the film makes a point of emphasising – built what’s best described a cult of personality around himself, his company and his animated progeny. Even today he’s deified by his legacy studio, something the godawful, mawkish trailer for this flick makes abundantly clear.
So let’s be thankful that the film itself isn’t so much about good ol’ Walt, even if Disney the company can’t help but portray him as the hero the story doesn’t really need. What – or who – it is really about is PL Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, who long rejected Disney advances to produce a film of her stories, until the early 1960s when she finally agreed to negotiations with Disney and his writers, provided certain conditions were met.
We follow prim and proper Emma Thompson as Travers, jetting from staid London to technicolor California and rearing up against the culture shocks of the Sunshine State, not least Walt Disney’s deliberately informal manner. But she’s got the upper hand in this deal: he needs to make the film as a promise to his daughters, but she holds the rights, and is only slightly moved by the thoughts of losing her house if she refuses. Accordingly she makes full use of her agreed script approval, demanding every work session is taped and constantly butting heads with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songsmiths the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) as they contrive a bouncy musical from Travers’ more sober tales.
In her more private moments, meanwhile, she’s lost in flashbacks to her childhood in colonial Australia, as her banker father ups sticks with his young family from their pleasant Victorian idyll to the literal end of the line. Dad (played melodramatic one moment, wallpaper bland the next by a half-arsed Colin Farrell, not unlike Dick Van Dyke’s pathetic Cockney in Mary Poppins) is a Peter Pan figure prone to flights of fancy, and with a penchant for booze that spells inevitable doom. And as the film has it, the family’s woes are the direct inspiration for the Banks clan in the Mary Poppins stories – the eponymous magical nanny swooping in to save not the children, but down-on-his-luck Mr Banks himself.
None of it’s verifiably true, of course; based on some truths, maybe, but not entirely accurate. There’s no evidence that Travers’ father died of anything other than influenza, for instance. But such loose dramatic licence makes for a tidier script, co-written by Sue Smith and debutante screenwriter Kelly Marcel (who claims she learned her craft from watching The West Wing; it shows). And at least director John Lee Hancock – last seen making saccharine biopics like The Blind Side, The Alamo and The Rookie – handles the transition from initial syrupy sweetness to more starkly dramatic scenes with some grace. Here both writers and director are helped by some smart production design (invoice payable to the Mad Men creative team) that nods in spots to the lives these characters led in the real world.
Of course there’s no getting away from the notion that Saving Mr Banks is a sentimental rendition of harsher realities – a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, indeed – though it does step back from some of the more obvious tearjerking tropes it occasionally teases. Still, there are many moments where suspension of disbelief is impossible, such as Walt’s greeting the rabble on a Disneyland tour: children and parents alike lighting up artificially in that ‘Oh golly gee!’ fashion, a host of mini Jimmy Stewarts with faces contorted like M&S mannequins. And then there’s Paul Giamatti, who takes the biscuit as the limo driver constantly chipping away at Travers’ steely exterior with his typical American jollity, begging for a slap in the chops.
But the lead performances are strong. Hanks has remarkably less screen time than the trailer suggests, and still his channelling of Walt Disney – surprisingly the first in a mainstream picture – becomes more restrained as the story progresses, showing signs of a real person beneath the jocular veneer. However it’s Thompson who steals the show, the workhorse anchoring nearly every scene (her younger counterpart Annie Buckley holds up the flashback segments), transcending the weaknesses of the part as written, gradually thawing from tight-lipped schoolmarm to something resembling the real, free-spirited PL Travers – even if the screenplay’s version is light on the actual woman’s “eye-watering complexity and contradiction”, as Thompson herself puts it, and ultimately succumbs to the charms of the House of Mouse.
The end result is a damn sight better than it could have been, for an officially sanctioned and produced depiction of the Disney empire’s patriarch. It was always going to whitewash Walt and put him in his best light, so it’s remarkable that Hanks’ role doesn’t hijack the picture till the final reel, and that Thompson’s Travers is allowed so much of the limelight, not to mention a sympathetic treatment. That’s being grateful for small mercies, I know. But here it’s worth making a comparison between Saving Mr Banks and another of the Walt Disney Company’s oft maligned creations, its theme parks: the mere prospect of the experience might make your toes curl, but when you get there, and though it may only last for a fleeting moment, you can’t help but be won over by the sheer attention to detail, the overwhelming commitment and sincere spirit of it all, even when the cracks show through.
Saving Mr Banks is in cinemas nationwide from November 29th