SAVING MR. BANKS is the story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) flying out to Burbank to develop the movie of her book Mary Poppins with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). I’m surprised it’s not called TRAVERS, following the last-name-of-character-to-indicate-this-is-a-biopic-and-this-small-story-is-representative-of-the-larger-story-of-their-life trend (CAPOTE, HITCHCOCK, LINCOLN, BLADE, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, etc.). Maybe they were worried people would think it was about Peter Travers.
As a one-time film critic herself, P.L. would never be confused with Positive Pete. It’s not mentioned in the movie, but I’ve read that in ’37 this Travers reviewed Disney’s pioneering achievement SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and trashed it. I wish I could read the whole thing, but all I can find is this quote that’s been floating around: “There is a profound cynicism at the root of his, as of all, sentimentality.” Lucky thing Rotten Tomatoes was only on index cards back then, so nobody cared that she was the Armond White of the ’30s, fuckin up its 100% fresh rating.
The comedic premise of the movie is that this rude grump that hated SNOW WHITE and believes all sentimentality is cynical shows up to her California hotel room to find it stocked with fruit baskets, balloons and cartoon character dolls. She reacts as if somebody left their dirty undies on her pillow. Walt Disney and his people have their way of trying to keep their guests happy, and this is the exact wrong lady to do any of that to. Or to even attempt to engage in human communication of any kind, to be frankly honest.
Before she meets Walt in person she sees him on TV being pixie-dusted by Tinkerbell and talking about “our story Peter Pan.” This doesn’t go over well with Travers, who in real life was heavily influenced by the guy who actually wrote that story, J.M. Barrie. It made me think of FINDING NEVERLAND, the unbearable biopic where Johnny Depp plays Barrie as a whimsical manchild who spends most of his time playing imagination games with kids. SAVING MR. BANKS is the opposite. It portrays Travers as a mean old grouch who constantly grumbles about magic and whimsy, hates being around children, and takes probly 2/3 or more of the movie before she ever talks to a person without being condescending and insulting to them. She doesn’t tip, she rarely speaks without complaining about something, and she has a bad habit of casually insulting people’s life work to their faces. Disney looks like she smeared shit on his lapel every time she snipes about his “silly cartoons.” There are many scenes where he would be semi-justified if he dumped a pot of tea on her head. But he takes it in stride, treating her as a curious puzzle to be solved. (They pretend in the movie that she hadn’t signed over the rights yet, and he had to impress her.)
As a friendly Disney secretary (Melanie Paxson) understates it, “she acted like an… angry person.” But they all forgive her. Paul Giamatti plays the poor schmuck stuck driving Miss Travers, who stays professional and upbeat no matter how much classist abuse she throws at him every day. Eventually she lets her guard down for a moment and he explains how his close relationship with his disabled daughter is the reason he does some of the things that Travers has repeatedly insulted him for. And somehow he says it like a friend, not like “DO YOU GET IT NOW? DO YOU STILL WANT TO DEGRADE ME LIKE THAT YOU MEAN OLD WITCH?”
Of course, she comes off as a likable asshole. They’re Disney but they’re not stupid, they expect you to relate to her to a certain extent, to her cynicsm and impatience with the pretend and with people being jolly. And you do have to admire her having created this character, having it be very personal to her and resisting handing over the reins to someone else even though she needs the money bad. Her talent and independence is supposed to overshadow her awfulness.
We first see her as a little girl with a whimsical dad not unlike Depp’s J.M. Barrie, but played by Colin Farrell. And we see through intermittent flashbacks how that dream childhood came crashing down. Since we know that little girl is inside her, and can empathize with all the pain she’s holding onto, and since Thompson projects such intelligence and will, we end up liking her, even though if we encountered somebody like this in our daily life we’d definitely despise her. It’s like a more societally acceptable BAD SANTA or YOUNG ADULT type of protagonist. Funny mean. It’s a testament to Thompson and the screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith that it somehow works.
Hanks is odd but brilliant casting. On one hand, he’s Tom Hanks, you can’t really see him as not Tom Hanks. He’s a very familiar face doing an imitation of another familiar face. On the other hand, Hanks has that wholesome you’d-have-to-be-kind-of-an-asshole-to-hate-him likability that Walt Disney also had. You could probly find a lesser known actor who could match Disney’s face and voice without the distraction of being the guy from the Tom Hanks movies, but I bet that actor would lack this specific type of charisma and it wouldn’t work as well.
A real key to the movie’s success is just being made by Disney. Some have smeared it as a Disney-on-Disney hagiography, but imagine the version where they have to tip-toe around licensing issues. Just this one matter of legality gives it a type of visual authenticity rarely seen in a true Hollywood story type movie like this. They heavily researched to create Disney’s office, you’re constantly seeing vintage Disney movie posters and memorabilia, actual design work from MARY POPPINS as well as other movies and rides hanging on walls, there’s even a big scene filmed in the real Disneyland, carefully shot and populated to look how it did in 1961. And the big fuckin cheat is that they get to build multiple scenes around the creation of these songs that we already know are great and are gonna be enjoyable to listen to. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) play Disney songwriters The Sherman Brothers, and they get to sit around a piano singing these catchy-as-hell classics.
And though director John Lee Hancock (writer of A PERFECT WORLD and MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL for Clint) does briefly show actors portraying Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke at the premiere he’s wise enough to keep them out of the spotlight so that at the end when we see footage of the movie it’s the real thing and not a Van Santing. For these reasons, if you’re into MARY POPPINS and Disney shit it’s pretty hard to resist. And it’s just a well crafted feel-good type of story about these enjoyably strong personalities butting heads over and over but finally finding a little common ground and making a connection. Or at least making MARY POPPINS.
If you’ve read my review of MARY POPPINS you know that for me the highlight of the movie is a quick shot of Mary overwhelmed with sadness after telling the kids she’s leaving. For some reason she sacrifices her own happiness and human connections to go from family to family teaching rich dudes to pay more attention to their kids. The Travers of SAVING MR. BANKS is the same in a way – she rolls her eyes through the MARY POPPINS premiere, but it makes her cry. She’s letting it go, giving up her insistence on how the character and story should be portrayed because this other version is clearly making everyone else happy.
(In reality she wasn’t really won over. They say she cried because she hated it. In fact she was so blind to the charms of the movie that decades later she put it in her will that no Americans, no one involved in the movie, and specifically no Sherman brother could work on the stage musical version.)
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SAVING MR. BANKS is a well-reviewed crowdpleaser type of movie, but of course it’s not gonna win everybody over to a pro-Fantasyland agenda. A good example of a cynical review is the LA Weekly one Amy Nicholson wrote under the sensationalistic headline “Saving Mr. Banks Is a Corporate, Borderline-Sexist Spoonful of Lies.” It’s a smart review, and I think she makes her best point in the fifth paragraph when she mentions some aspects of the real Travers’s non-conformist lifestyle that she thinks would be more interesting on screen than “this stiff British stereotype determined to steal joy from future generations of children.” Basically she sees the movie as a corporation glorifying its founder and trashing Travers in order to advertise MARY POPPINS on blu-ray.
But I think there are two crucial points that Nicholson is missing. #1, the movie fucking loves Travers. Yeah, she’s a grouch, but she’s supposed to be adorable and hilarious. You are supposed to relate to her and love her. You’re supposed to agree with her that Disney doesn’t understand the point of her story until he learns to understand her more. And of course the movie is shown from her point of view, not Disney’s. She is the heroine. Reading about the real Travers it seems to me like they really had to water down how mean and awful she could be in order to make her not the villain. This is also backed up by the end credits when they play some of the recordings of the real story meetings. The fictional version plays as funny banter, the actual meetings sound torturous and soul-crushing. So it seems unfair to paint it as an attack on Travers.
More importantly, #2, you sorta gotta acknowledge that the MARY POPPINS Disney made against Travers’ objections turned out to be a great fuckin movie. I say that not as proof that Disney was right, but as proof that this story brings up ideas about art that are interesting to think about, especially in this age of so many “properties” and “franchises” being remade, rebooted, sequeled, prequeled, musicalled, movie-fied and TV-d. On one hand, of course you want to respect the creator of the character, and try to preserve her vision in any adaptations. On the other hand, what the fuck kind of monster hates MARY POPPINS? How seriously should we, as human beings with hearts, take her opinion on that, having seen the movie ourselves?
The kneejerk reaction for most people, me included, should always be to side with the creator. But if pixie dust is so offensive to you then so should this simplistic fake-edgy view of the world where things that seem happy are always secretly evil. Sometimes delightful things really are delightful, and sometimes an underdog can be a huge asshole. The world is not simple, you gotta acknowledge the reality that people have made great movies hated by the creators of their source material. Cartoonist R. Crumb hated the FRITZ THE CAT movie so much he killed off the character, but do you really think you’re gonna have the same taste in movies as that guy? Or with this lady who despises animation but sold her story to the world’s premiere animation studio?
There aren’t many people out there who aren’t sometimes total hypocrites about this creator’s rights issue. If we’re gonna be so gung ho about the original vision then maybe we need to stop complaining about George Lucas tinkering with his STAR WARS movies and respect that the version we prefer is a corporate spoonful of space lies.
We should honor the creators, but should we deny the world Disney’s MARY POPPINS and Kubrick’s THE SHINING? That’s a real question, not a leading one. Where do you draw the line on that? I don’t know the answer. That’s why this movie is interesting above and beyond just being cute entertainment. It’s not just sugar.
People like us tend to be instinctively repelled by that sugar. Anything we see as wholesome or saccharine. We figure if it smiles that big it must be up to something. Happy = pablum to brainwash the masses. In the ’80s we felt we’d been sold a bill of goods by Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best. We struck back with subversive collages of vintage magazine ads on punk rock album covers, and movies that uncovered dark secrets behind picket fences. We thought it was sticking it to the man to enjoy a demonic Colonel Sanders or Mickey Mouse towering over a scene of apocalyptic carnage. I remember I hated that song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” so much. I thought it was telling us to shut up and be ignorant.
And Disney is an easy target for that type of attitude. How could there be this guy that makes amazing cartoons and builds a theme park that will blow your mind and comes on TV and welcomes you to THE CAT FROM OUTER SPACE? What the hell, man? Fuck that guy! It’s in our blood to assume somebody that seems wholesome is actually sinister. But in reality this sort of kneejerk reaction is just as dumb and simplistic a view of the world as what we think we’re fighting against. It’s just another way of making the world seem easy to understand without having to take the time to know shit from shinola.
For example, I won’t be surprised if some goofball doesn’t read all the way to this part of the review, goes straight to the comments and writes some shit about Walt Disney was an anti-Semite or a Nazi. He’ll think he’s sharing the inside dope, but really he’s just repeating exaggeration of conjecture taken out of historical context and from a few unverified claims by an animator who bitterly opposed Disney in a strike. People will repeat a smear like that as fact without even knowing the details or taking the time to read a balanced look at the evidence like this one because they would rather believe that a guy who made BAMBI is a monster than just a guy who made a beautiful movie about an innocent deer growing up. It fits into our world view better.
It works that way with politics too. It’s easier to just say Obama is a liar who sold us Hope brand snake oil than to see that he’s tackled many problems, some with great success, but hasn’t figured out how to deal with the severe obstructionism he faces; that he has compromised some of the things we want him to do, sometimes in disappointing ways, sometimes in clever strategic ways; that he has made progress in areas I honestly didn’t expect him to (gay rights, affordable health care) while disappointing me by not getting Guantanomo closed and allowing the post 9-11 intelligence community overreach to grow in ways that I’m not comfortable with; that he has used the military more hawkishly than I believe in but admittedly much more effectively than the previous administration. Personally I think he’s a good man, but I don’t agree with everything he’s done. Shit is complex, nuanced and contradictory, but we live in a culture that tries to make everything for or against, good or evil, black or white. Most people say they don’t believe in fairy tales, but they really still want everything to be either the princess or the wicked stepmother, not something in between.
Alot of people are in between, hopefully leaning toward princess. Walt Disney was a studio head, so not surprisingly he was the bad guy in labor disputes, and that experience reportedly turned him more conservative as he got older. He was very anti-communist and to me it sounds like the worst thing he ever did was testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee (the day after Ronald Reagan) and state his dumbass beliefs that some of the people that opposed him in the strike were communists. (more detail here) That’s on the record, so you can put him in the Elia Kazan column of geniuses that hurt people by taking part in that witch hunt. He had his faults and also he was a well-liked guy responsible for incredible works of art and putting together teams, philosophies and technologies that outlived him.
Disney (the man and the studio he built) get the P.L. Travers thoughtless brush-off by alot of people these days. It’s understandable because part of his legacy is a giant corporation. Without the man but with an ever-growing empire of media, products and theme parks, the name Disney became synonymous with pandering children’s entertainment and over-merchandising. To “Disney-fy” a story is to cut its balls off and replace them with bunnies. It’s not an entirely unearned reputation. They are a giant corporation trying to make giant corporate money. They are masters of marketing, branding, merchandising, and their very successful cable channel is a teen pop star factory that has no sign of the standards set by the man whose name it bears. Also they’ve become one of those conglomerates that owns everything, from the Muppets to Marvel Comics to Star Wars to ESPN. It makes sense to be suspicious of them as a company.
We all know this, but I’m sick of dumb motherfuckers dismissing the entire complex history and legacy of the man based on this lazy generalization and thinking they’re being edgy or subversive. It pisses me off not because I believe in fairy tales or something like that, but because if EVER there was a motherfucker that strove for excellence, it was Walt god damn Disney. I don’t mind if you hate cute cartoon animals, but to deny or to not notice that Disney’s animation and his theme park are towering achievements is just straight up ignorance. For fuck’s sake, what does a guy have to do to get a little credit from you knuckleheads?
Look at the animation studio. He sunk millions of his own dollars into making SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS at a time when animated features weren’t a thing that existed, and the idea that people would want to watch one was scoffed at. But he pulled it off. We’re talking about a movie that’s 75 god damn years old and holds up pretty fuckin good. I got it on blu-ray. And then he made PINOCCHIO, BAMBI, DUMBO, FANTASIA, and on and on. How many movies from the 30s or 40s can you name that continue to be seen and loved by each new generation, not even necessarily realizing how old it is? Do you think ICE AGE, SHREK, MADAGASCAR, etc. will even hold up at 20? Walt Disney and his people created timeless classics of storytelling, songwriting and incredibly sophisticated technical achievements, the best work of some of the greatest animators who ever lived, impossible to recreate today, already old as dirt before we were born but still capturing the hearts of people around the world.
Generations later you’d prefer to see guns and boobs in your cartoons, not singing birds, so you’re gonna dismiss that unprecedented body of work as mindless treacle for kiddies only? Fuck you.
Now look at Disneyland. In fact, let’s just focus on one ride in Disneyland: Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney at first wanted to have a pirate-themed walk-through wax museum. But then he and his people got more ambitious. They developed this idea of audio-animatronics, sculptural characters that moved and talked in synch with a pre-recorded soundtrack. So some of their greatest animators worked to design all these pirate characters and visual jokes that could be done with them (like the famous dog holding a key ring in his mouth outside of a cell where several incarcerated pirates whistle and try to carefully lure him over). They sculpted these characters in three dimensions. They sewed them costumes, built them props. They built the technology that made them move and blink and talk, programmed them with personality. They wrote this great song, recorded an elaborate score, wrote and recorded looping dialogue and sound effects. They put them on huge sets, lit them dramatically to create this whole world to get wrapped up in. And they designed it as this slow, atmospheric build. We ride a boat through a quiet night in the swamp (with convincing artificial sky), through eerie, echoey caves full of waterfalls and posed skeletons. We hear “Pirate’s Life For Me” form from spooky abandoned player pianos and harpsichords, a simple tune that picks up more instrumentation as it goes along until the boat emerges from the cave into a wide open room where a seemingly full-sized Pirate ship attacks the shore, the two sides yelling back and forth to each other as their cannonballs and bullets zip over our heads. We float through the ransacked, burning town and hear the song sung drunkly by, I don’t know, dozens of distinct characters, doing their piratey business (auctioning wenches; singing to a cat; dunking a guy in a well to get information, his wife yelling from the window for him not to be a coward).
We love movies here, this is a theme park ride we’re talking about. It may not move you like a personal story would, but it’s an undertaking of technique and craftsmanship at least as impressive as an epic movie production. It’s a topnotch work of design, animation, technology, staging, lighting, special effects, music, comedy, storytelling. These people took the primitive form of the carnival spook house and catapulted it far beyond what anyone could’ve imagined, or what any other company has matched 45 years later. But some motherfuckers are gonna dismiss it because the company makes too many Mickey Mouse dolls? ‘Cause they and they alone noticed that real life doesn’t always live happily ever after and they’re rebelling against that sellout Jiminy Cricket for telling them to believe in fairies? ‘Cause they don’t like waiting in lines in the summer?
Fuck you. You gotta recognize. Don’t be an idiot.
(that’s a quote from Thumper I believe.)
Look, all I’m saying is Pirates is just one of many unprecedented achievements in the one-of-a-kind place Disney risked everything to build just because he wanted it to exist. And SNOW WHITE is just one landmark movie on a long filmography. You don’t have to like it and you can feel awesome rebelling against beloved American institutions, but you look stupid if you can’t acknowledge Disney’s achievement of bringing together geniuses to build things nobody else thought of or thought were possible. Disney shit is amazing and corny and crass and wonderful and not my thing and right up my alley. Enough with this dumb binary thinking. Appreciate nuance and contradiction, but also be willing to abandon cynicism. Learn to appreciate a warm feeling without having to search for the dark Nazi underbelly.
Please, I gotta reach some of you sourpusses so I can call it a day and fly away to my cloud.
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here’s a piece from The Guardian that I liked, sympathetic to both Travers and SAVING MR. BANKS
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.