Saving Mr. Banks

tn_savingmrbanksSAVING 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.)

mp_savingmrbanksAs 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.)

* * *

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.

* * *

here’s a piece from The Guardian that I liked, sympathetic to both Travers and SAVING MR. BANKS

This entry was posted on Monday, December 23rd, 2013 at 2:13 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

60 Responses to “Saving Mr. Banks”

  1. Best piece in a LONG time, Vern. And I don’t mean to imply that you’ve been slacking off. Bravo.

  2. Vern. Great piece, one of my new favorites of yours. For the sake of brevity I will say that I agree with every single thing you said about Walt Disney (the man) and his achievements, and thanks for bringing all that stuff to my attention. I never knew that shit before or would have thought of it that way. Pretty cool.

    Now for my one minor quibble, about the movie, because I didn’t like it that much. You write about the questions it raised for you, and say “That’s why this movie is interesting above and beyond just being cute entertainment. It’s not just sugar.” And man, I wish I could agree that the movie cared about that at all, because I agree that those are interesting questions, but the movie I saw had little or no interest in raising them. And that, I think, was the main reason I came away dis-satisifed. There’s clearly an incredible story to be told there, one that has the potential to provoke some interesting discussion, but to my mind it was more interested in scoring easy points off of scene after scene of Grumpy Old Lady being a sourpuss about classic songs, or half-assing cutesy life-affirming lessons about how you should treat your (offscreen) handicapped kids like real people.

    I guess all I’m saying is, you got more out of the movie than I did. And I respect that, but it was not my experience. But then I got more out of this article than I did from the movie. So, thanks for that.

    Keep striving for excellence, chum.

  3. Great piece Vern. The movie wasn’t really my thing, but knee-jerk cynicism is so played out. Also, I love that the first related post was saving private Ryan.

  4. “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’d draw the line if something was partially adapted from another work, but that the previous work wasn’t given any credit. One of the few fortunate reasons lawyers roam the earth.

    Otherwise I think if the film can somehow take another view of the source material that makes for as compelling a story, then that wins out. APOCALYPSE NOW and BLADE RUNNER are very loose adaptations but nonetheless compelling films. A lesser but valid example of this I can think of is SECRETARY. I won’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but it takes a considerably more involved trajectory whereas the story it was based on felt lifeless in comparison.

  5. I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution before. But I really changed my life for the better in 2013, so much so that I think I might finally be ready to Strive for Excellence.

    2014: Striving for Excellence!

  6. Vern, I am speechless, I honestly don’t know what to say other than that was my amazing, just amazing, I love you, man

    I’ve never been a Disney hater, that attitude has always seemed too easy and simplistic to me, there’s a lot that’s wrong with the world, so much so that to act like Disney is a prime example of it just seems obnoxious, if you want to go after something go after the Oil companies or Lockheed Martin or something, not a media company

    another things that gets a lot of respect from me is this, American culture used to not give a shit about children, they were “property” of their parents, nothing more, only to speak when spoken to, overlooked, undervalued and underestimated, Walt Disney decided that children were valuable and deserved a place where they could be happy and entertainment tailor made for them that was quality and not cheap garbage, that’s a remarkable thing that I think honestly had an influence on changing American culture’s attitude about kids

    also, I want to make one thing clear, I’m an “anime guy” but I love Disney, in fact I’m more of a general animation fan, I love Disney movies, Looney Tunes, Nicktoons and anime

  7. Jesus. Fucking. Christ. Vern. This piece is a monster. I’m proud to know you, man.

  8. Vern, what a great way to end the year. Fantastic review with added bonus of the best take down of cynicism in pop culture that I have read. Testify!

  9. Agree with those above— this review is a new classic. What you say in the second half kind of reminded me of PT Anderson’s movie The Master. My hat is off to you, Vern.

    This summer I committed the error of seeing that illegally-shot-at-Disneyland movie Escape From Tomorrow, which leans very hard on the whole “Disney’s totally lame and fucked up” thing. The only truly surreal part of that viewing experience was seeing the trailer for Saving Mr. Banks before Escape From Tomorrow played. Still wondering what was going on there.

  10. Beautiful piece about the complexity of art and artists. I agree it should have been called TRAVERS.

  11. I want to hug you for this.

  12. I mean, I’m as skeptical of the Disney machine as anyone, but any process that could produce DUMBO deserves to be defended with furious and vulgar gusto. The one-two punch of the back-to-back “Baby Mine” and “Pink Elephants” scenes is some kind of sweet, sinister genius.

  13. I love it. I love how only you, Vern, can deliver a review that feels like it’s full of holiday cheer with that many “fuck you”s in it. I have to admit that when you were talking about Hanks having the charisma to play such a likeable man as Disney, I thought to myself about him being an anti-Semite. Although, to give myself some credit I then thought, “Wait, where did I hear that? Maybe it’s total BS.”

    I didn’t get to visit Disneyland until I was an adult. I was blown away by the excellence striven for at that park. The landscaping, the buildings, the rides, the animatronics, the workers (be they characters or not) were all on a level that you just don’t see at other places. It truly felt like I was in another world. As I was standing at the carousel, waiting for my niece, who was riding it, a little girl came whirling past me and she pointed up to the castle and yelled, “To the castle!” Any place that can make children believe that it just might be possible for a carousel horse to break free and take them to the castle hasn’t just striven for excellence, but found some of it.

    Hat’s off to you for such a great call out to all of us to look past cynicism and take a chance on wonder.

  14. From everything I’ve read, ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW sounds awful. But the crew is to be commended for pulling off filming the whole thing in guerrilla fashion. But I never quite agreed with the “lame and fucked up” people. That sort of thinking as it applies to things that are actually good but are deemed “sell-outs” is quite obnoxious. It’s funny because the most recent episode of The Nerdist was with Moby and he said he went through a period where he hated Prince when he was just getting popular. Then he said he saw PURPLE RAIN and it blew his mind and fell in love with his stuff again, and proceeded to talk about that “too cool for school” attitude some groups of people have.

  15. to add to Vern’s point about Mr. Disney, consider this: Back in the so-called “Golden Age” of Hollywood in the 1930s-40s, the studios all had identities made by their frequent output at the time. WB made gangster pictures, Universal did monster movies, MGM did musicals, so forth. Disney made cartoons squared at the family-friendly demographic. They would branch out into live action fare in the 1950s, but aimed at the same target audience.

    Now in 2013, all those studios have no real identity and don’t really stand out from each other. (Their franchises are bigger than the studios and do the talking, quite frankly.) Hell MGM isn’t really a real studio, but merely a shell for Sony. But Disney the brand name is still going at it making “Disney movies.” Hell their recent release FROZEN was based off the Snow Queen legend which Disney tried and failed to adapt in his lifetime. For that matter if you think about it, Marvel and STAR WARS, they’re basically in the same live action adventure tradition of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (which I fucking loved as a kid. Surely I can’t be the only one?)

    So yeah as a cinemaphile, I’m impressed that Mr. Disney wasn’t just another studio mogul who created a studio that’s still around, but that today it’s still somewhat working from the same filmatic perspective of the world (or “formula” if you insist) that Disney was operating under back then.

    As for the cynical knee-jerkness at Disney which Vern brings up, I have 2 thoughts which if you ask me help fuel that mentality:

    (1) angry male teenagers who grew up under Disney but then arrive at that awkward age when they’re “too old” for that shit and well now that they’re more aware and smarter than the younger kids, yeah they can see through that “bulshit.” There was a time when I wouldn’t have bothered with a movie like FROZEN because of that stage in my life. (I think we all go through such stages, don’t we?) But then maybe you get older and you get over it and then look back, and you admire the craftsmanship, the acting, whatever and enjoy them as an adult.

    (2) the times when Disney really did stink up the joint. Let’s admit it, Disney has produced alot of dogs (and movies that looked like dogs that you never wanted to see, not even at gunpoint.) Sometimes they’re half-assed and too lazy on the Disney formula, sometimes the writing fails, sometimes they “improve” a movie to death just to fit into what they felt was a so-called “Disney” cartoon movie. Its easy to fall into that mindset when you think the fuckers are coasting way too much for too long.

    I mean how long was Disney animation (excluding Pixar) in a slump after the Disney Renaissance? During that same era was when Pixar not only eclipsed Disney’s cartoon unit, but Disney had to buy them so to keep them from defecting to another studio. (Or put it another way, what was Disney cranking out when Pixar was pumping out FINDING NEMO and THE INCREDIBLES a decade ago? BROTHER BEAR and HOME ON THE RANGE. What. The. Hell?)

    I mean now with FROZEN, people are celebrating the Mouse House making a comeback as a cartoon factory in its own right while now Pixar is considered to be undergoing its own slump (an opinion I don’t agree with, but nevermind.)

  16. I’m the dude who told the world that LION KING 3D was by far the best film I saw in theatres in 2011 and that BEAUTY & THE BEAST 3D was by far the best film I saw in theatres in 2012 and that THE INCREDIBLES is the best film of the 21st century, so… yeah.

    Preacher Vern can continue projecting his sermon in the direction opposite Mouth’s Choir.

    I hate being in close proximity to small children, though, so I might never check out the Disney theme parks.

    Also I support good dental hygiene, so I have mixed feelings about MARY POPPINS. “Spoonful of sugar” mixed with medicine for kids? That ain’t right, what the fuck?

  17. I love small children and they love me, but I don’t really need to partake of their entertainment. When forced to, I’ll point out subtext they’re far too young to understand, like how BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is completely irresponsible in its insistence that sensitive young women should stick with their abusive, controlling boyfriends in the delusional hope that someday they will magically transform into caring, loving husbands. I’m there to inform, challenge, and corrupt them. Their fantasies are their own business.

  18. “angry male teenagers who grew up under Disney but then arrive at that awkward age when they’re “too old” for that shit and well now that they’re more aware and smarter than the younger kids, yeah they can see through that “bulshit.” There was a time when I wouldn’t have bothered with a movie like FROZEN because of that stage in my life. (I think we all go through such stages, don’t we?)”

    well, for me, I obviously outgrew Disney movies as I got into my teens (though you better believe I still saw THE INCREDIBLES) and got into anime and the like, but I never really went through a period where I “hated” Disney or thought it was “bullshit”, in fact I remember playing KINGDOM HEARTS and thinking it was really cool how it was a blending of anime style storytelling and characters and Disney style and characters, it was a best of both worlds scenario

    and then of course as soon as I got the internet I obsessively read any info I could find on the theme parks (this site in particular really blew my mind http://www.20kride.com/ )

  19. RRA: For a time, Disney seemed to be interesting in diversifying into more adult fare through their Touchstone/Hollywood companies as well as helping distribute Miramax. Those ventures proved well for them as the studios produced some classic movies from the 80’s to the 00’s, not to mention Miramax’s dominance of the independent film market in the 90’s. That may have lead to the Disney slump in the 90’s as far as their in-house movies, apart from Pixar.

    Ultimately I can see how it was a smart decision to essentially shut down those studios (Touchstone is really around in name only behind DreamWorks’ stuff now) and part ways with at first the Weinsteins then Miramax all together, and in return becoming involved with both Marvel and Lucas. It ensures that the studio is going back to what they were, being the pre-dominant family entertainment juggernaut.

  20. Gaston was the abusive, controlling one, and Belle rebuffs him despite the entire town’s insistence/acquiescence that they must be a couple.

    Beast {SPOILERS} Gaston, or at least presides over Gaston’s {SPOILER}, thereby symbolically killing the abusive controlling side of machismo & patriarchy and facilitating Beast’s transition to gentleness, gentlemanliness, and true [requited, mutual, respectful] love.

    Majestyk has corrupted kids’ minds in ways he doesn’t quite understand

  21. This is the best thing I’ve read in a long time. It’s fantastic to see someone standing up against the lazy, default faux-cynicism of modern critical culture. I’ll be showing this to as many people as I can.

    Bravo and Merry Christmas, Vern.

  22. So I just shared this on all my social media accouts and I’m also printing it right now, for personal reading pleasure. If there is a text that was made to be shared with everybody today, it’s this one. (Not trying to hurt any religious feeling, btw.)

  23. Also I might add, I honestly believe that ICE AGE (at least the first one, maybe even the 3rd too) will hold up on its 20th anniversary.

  24. no offense CJ, but I doubt it, I actually saw ICE AGE in theaters in 2002 and I remember almost nothing about it

    and just in case you think that’s simply because it’s been so long, well it’s been even longer since I’ve SHREK but I remember that one well (though it’s no masterpiece either)

  25. I don’t wanna derail Vern’s masterpiece of 2013 with a discussion about fucking ICE AGE, but it’s really on my list of the most underrated animated movies of our time. It should be said that I’m not putting it in the masterpiece category either, but for any reason it always gets unfairly lumped into the farting-animals-make-popculture-references bin, when it is actually a very sweet movie, with likeable characters and certain moments of true greatness (Manni’s cave painting flashback.). I suspect that the way more joke oriented sequels kinda tainted everybody’s opinion on them (Just like everybody thinks the first BOURNE movie was as incompetently shot as part 2 & 3, although it in fact looked great and avoided any post action moments) and it makes me sad.

    And since I already mentioned the sequels: part 3 really is great too. It’s just one big, visually stunning adventure movie, that never stops to entertain and I can not recommend it enough. (Parts 2 & 4 are pretty bad, though. Especially 4, which left the taste of a bad fanfiction in my mouth.)

    That’s all. Proceed. Group hug and merry christmas and so on.

  26. This movie is Disney propaganda, I think it’s pretty obvious actually. Doesn’t mean it’s not a good movie but they did make it seem like Walt Disney saved her soul, which I doubt is how it actually went down. I still enjoyed the movie for the great performances, but it definitely tips on the side of Disney propaganda.

  27. Geez, I skipped right to the Lethal Weapon review first, but this one is a fucking masterpiece! It felt so fucking good reading this just now, because I’ve had the same argument with many, many people. you are a fucking asshole if you totally deny shit like Jungle Book, the Aristocats, Sleeping goddamn Beauty. I mean, this is a serious problem with our youth cultures, and it takes a real badass to not just admit, but gush with love and praise over the majesty of all those great films they made. Robin Hood? Three Caballeros? Fuck man, it doesn’t even get dicey til Fox and the Hound and that’s after like fifty years of great shit. WELL DONEEEE

  28. One thing about the Disney was a racist/anti-semite scrawls is that it seems to overlook that it would be fair to bet that ALL great fillm-makers from the golden-age would almost certainly fail to withhold our contemporary moral scrutiny. There can be little doubt, that, at the very least, Tex Avery found racial humour far more humorous than Disney dd, but as his work isn’t seen as “sacred” it is rarely held against him

  29. Onthewall— Escape From Tomorrow is indeed a piece of shit. I agree that the guerilla aspect of it is cool (although there were a couple of obvious greenscreen shots in there too), but the underlying sentiment of both the movie and their decision to shoot it that way seems to be nothing more than “Hey, we’re really sticking it to ol’ Disney over here.” It is an empty, boring movie to sit through.

    I think my Prince awakening happened when he played the Super Bowl halftime show several years ago, but better late than never, right?

  30. Vern you gotta stop with the Obama shit. It comes up every so often and it’s not changing minds or convincing anyone. Just stop. He’s garbage. I voted for him twice but the second time it was absolutely a vote against that loathsome slug Romney. The dude lets the military drone-bombs innocent kids and let the NSA invade every aspect of our lives so badly that some nerd had to ruin his life to let us all know about it. He backed austerity, supported telecom immunity for illegal spying, and was going to sell out Social Security for some meaningless budget crumbs and you’ll never convince me, or anyone else, that a right-wing healthcare plan from 1994 was worth all of that. So just drop it and let me read your excellent reviews.

  31. Pacman 2 – I seem to remember the Jewish Lauren Bacall recounting once about having to bite her tongue while Howard Hawks (unaware of her ethnicity) went off on an anti-semitic spiel during a shoot.

    Ph – what I find funny about ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW is that clearly the filmmakers expected to get sued by Disney and planned a whole campaign based off the anti-establishment, hipster identity of “hey Disney SUED us! Aint that cool?” Except Disney totally ignored them and the movie died in theaters from what I understand. OPPS! Smart move, Mickey.

    CJ – I don’t dare guess which modern movies will be remembered well far into the future because it’s unpredictable. Consider how you had two infamous hated 1970s flops in Friedkin’s SORCERER and Bogdanovich’s AT LONG LAST LOVE have been lately restored and riding a positive critical re-examination lately. (Vern was on top of SORCERER in the first place, of course. Well 2nd since Ebert back in the day put that on his Top 10 list that year. Thanks Roger!)

    But if we’re talking the modern CGI toon movies, I think the safest bet will be most of the Pixar films will have a good shelf life. Even if technology changes, there’s something primal about alot of them that adults and children can relate to on their own level.

    Of course its interesting (from my perspective), remember when SHREK was a monster hit back in the day? It spawned several sequels and other fixtures that DreamWorks is still cashing in, but if that Animated Feature Oscar category for that year was held now , I wonder if MONSTERS, INC. would win instead? But this is just amateur speculation.

    “Grow up…”

    Griff – yeah that term really was what I was gunning for to be broadly exact.

    Let me quote what Mr. Ebert said when he reviewed GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE:

    “There’s a learning process that moviegoers go through. They begin in childhood without sophistication or much taste, and for example, like “Gamera” more than “Air Force One” because flying turtles are obviously more entertaining than United States presidents. Then they grow older and develop “taste,” and prefer “Air Force One,” which is better made and has big stars and a more plausible plot. (Isn’t it more believable, after all, that a president could single-handedly wipe out a planeload of terrorists than that a giant turtle could spit gobs of flame?) Then, if they continue to grow older and wiser, they complete the circle and return to “Gamera” again, realizing that while both movies are preposterous, the turtle movie has the charm of utter goofiness–and, in an age of flawless special effects, it is somehow more fun to watch flawed ones.”

  32. BTW, I’m now watching Disney’s 1950 classic CINDERELLA with the family.

  33. This piece is the shit. A new level of excellence.

    Also, the Sherman Brothers are the most under-appreciated songwriters ever.

  34. Typically excellent review. Perhaps it’s just what I’ve been reading, but it’s rare to see other contemporary critics cited respectfully and with balance in mind from other writers these days. This one is a true class act.

    All that said, everybody probably knows that anti-Disney sentiment has other dimensions. I can view Disney as an amazing company that has produced far, far more good work than bad (which I do) and still have a problem with its movements towards owning large swaths of culture. <a href="” title=”Here’s a convenient Google result”> with a brief overview of the likelihood that copyright will be extended again. I wouldn’t even care that much about the Disney characters being protected. It’s the gigantic amount of other culture that continues to be locked up that bothers me. This is why public schools can’t put on zero-budget stage adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” like God intended.

  35. aww yeah who’s awesome at HTML

  36. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but isn’t it a little insulting to make a movie portraying how Travers was won over by the Mary Poppins film when in reality she wasn’t in the slightest?

    I know that movies distort “real life” stories all the time. In fact, I welcome the poetic license approach to filmmaking, and I’d never be gullible enough to think that Braveheart represents the real William Wallace or that Ed Wood was really just a wholesome and charming Johnny Depp lookalike, but this does seem like a double insult.

    Kinda like making a movie about how grumpy old Alan Moore first hated the fact that Hollywood was adapting The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen into a film, but eventually grew to love and respect that scene where Sean Connery teaches Tom Sawyer how to shoot.

    Granted, Mary Poppins is a great film and League isn’t, but there’s no need to flat out lie to us about the opinion of the one person who had the closest personal investment in the story.

  37. I understand the impulse toward Disney bashing. A lot their 90’s work is overrated and the reach of their media empire has created this kind of culture of self-valorization around their intellectual “properties.” I think some of this has to do with the shift that occurred in the company. Look at Epcot for instance. Originally, Epcot was going to be Walt Disney’s concept of a technocratically managed utopia that people would actually live in. But after he died, his less ambitious and creative inheritors of the company basically turned it into another theme park. Hell, it took Roy Disney about 20 years to convince the suits to take the animation unit seriously and put real resources into it. Walt, whatever his faults, wasn’t only interested in making money.

    On another note, I always thought that they should have done a film or something about Ward Kimball. He was one of the “nine old men” and according to Disney “the only genius who ever worked at the studio.” The dude also had this weirdly puckish and bohemian sensibility for someone with a job at Disney. Go look up some interviews with the guy. If you want to hear about Disney from someone who was totally honest and just didn’t give a fuck, check them out. There’s a reason the Disney corp has been trying to supress some forthcoming biographies on the guy.

  38. Walken, I don’t bring it up that much, I’ve mostly stopped writing about politics and I’m not trying to convince anybody. But to have written columns like I did about his election and then not bring it up anymore after his popularity plunged would be cowardly. Furthermore, I felt that bringing my point about things being complicated and contradictory to the next level, from the movie world to the actual world, was an important part of the argument.

    Anyway Merry Christmas everybody, I appreciate all the kinds words about this review ’cause I worked hard on it.

  39. Mention Obama all you want, Vern, last i checked this is your site.

    And I agree with the consensus, this is an excellent piece.


  40. Merry Christmas Vern. It’s been a great year for getting to know you through your writing. Can’t wait to see what the new year brings for Outlaw Vern. Maybe a new book? An auto-biography? An original screenplay for an old-school action film(to be directed by Isaac Florentine)? The possibilities are limitless.

  41. Rock on, Vern.

  42. A great piece with wonderful, anti-cynicism sentiments. I just wish it wasn’t in support of such a crap movie.

    I guess some have a higher tolerance for middlebrow filmmaking (just go high or low with that shit, motherfucker), but John Lee Hancock is a big fat fucking zero to me. This is the same dude who made THE BLIND SIDE, fyi, and here he can’t help but hit the same obvious beats every single moment. As soon as Emma Thompson shows up and starts being absolutely (awesomely) toxic, you KNOW that she’s going to lose, that she’s going to melt, that she’s going to switch to the side of the angels. I know Vern’s words rail against a dichotomy of good/bad, but I think the movie wants to have it just like that, with Walt Disney as the good guy bringing Travers into the Disney fold. In the end, it’s Disney who gets to make a big speech, it’s Disney who had her figured out all along, and it’s Disney who essentially diagnoses her childhood issues. That last bit reminded me of the time Chili Palmer explained Aerosmith’s songs to Steven Tyler.

    This is also a movie where a strong-willed creative female is deprived of her artistic wishes and undergoing a theraputic makeover thanks to, quite literally, one of the most powerful men on the planet, as well as four other dudes (including the limo driver – poor Paul Giamatti) and one mousy secretary stereotype. Doesn’t really matter if it’s Disney, the power dynamics are far too off-putting, particularly with an actress like Thompson.

    I can’t blast Disney for who they were, making endless children’s classics like they were falling out of someone’s pockets. But I can blast them for their modern day avarice, for their declining good films, for how their Pixar films were great for a period but are on a sharp downswing. I can blast them for giving primetime coverage to a Christmas parade that turns the holiday into the most craven, desperate park-plugging advertisement in the world*. And I can blame them for the continued merchandising, not regarding the movies, but of the movies themselves: purchasing Lucasfilms and Marvel basically shows that this is a studio trying to create a monopoly on big-budget tentpoles, feeding into a marketplace where we see the same films over and over again. Also, this probably doesn’t matter very much, but “Frozen” is kind of not-great, dull from a storytelling perspective, and loaded with weak songs and ineffectual voicework.

    I greatly enjoyed the fairly-poorly-made “Escape From Tomorrow” specifically because of how over-the-top satirical it was, as if it was a mockery of people who were anti-Disney all the time (and feeding into conspiracy theories that may or may not exist). I love that the film has a swooning fake-Disney score by Abel Korzeniowski that ranks as both a Disney sound-alike as well as one of the warmest, most swoony scores I’ve heard this year. I love the idea that the film is equally, sloppily, offensively sexist in its depiction of marriage as a hellhole to forbidden temptation and misbehavior. I love all this because it does take the fight to Disney, as only a goofy-ass microbudgeted film can, shooting on the rides, at the resorts, using the territory to craft a borderline-Lynchian tale of shifting perspectives and dream narrative. I love this because Disney, at the end of the day, can take it. And that’s really the bottom line, no?

    *I’m not exaggerating in the slightest: it was a parade packed with Disney characters and musicians, but it would stop short for several infotainment segments starring Disney stars traipsing around the parks, pushing the various rides and attractions, baldly demanding you make a visit while a phone number plays at the bottom of the screen. I don’t know WHAT Christmas means anymore, really, but it sure doesn’t mean this bullshit.

  43. I’m ok with ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW because I can speak from personal experience that emotions can run high at Disney World and as great as the parks are it really is also the perfect place to have a mental breakdown

  44. reviews like this is why i always compulsively return to this website

    i’m sorry, websight

  45. I just realized that this film has one of the worst fucking posters I’ve seen in ages. Really, really cheap, forced, and oddly creepy to me for some reason. Hanks’s shadow is turning into a fucking Shoggoth…

  46. Eh I like that poster. It says something about the movie and its a good memorable look.

    Compare that with the poster for WOLF OF WALL STREET, which is….I mean WTF is that shit?

    Btw, I saw WOWS. Really fucking good, the CASINO/GOODFELLAS of Wall Street movies.

  47. Yeah, I see nothing wrong with it. It’s nothing special, but gets the point across. At least it’s not floating heads.

    Yeah, WOLF OF WALL STREET is great. Give Jonah Hill all the awards, now.

  48. is it me or has Hollywood thankfully moved away from floating heads? it seems to be a lot rarer than it was a few years back to me anyway

  49. Griff – I’ve noticed that too. The only ’13 release off the top of my head that did floating heads was OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, but only on the DVD cover. If I remember right, the theatrical poster was the White House in flames while the U.S. flag is burning. (NOOOOOOOOOOOO!)

    onthewall2983 – I don’t want to go off-topic since I’m sure Vern will review WOWS at some point, so I’ll finish my WOWS stuff here by saying how it sucks that the movie sorta got stuck with some bullshit from some people who claim the movie celebrates that real life guy’s thievery (it doesn’t) or that the movie doesn’t say that it thinks he’s a rotten human being (it does), or that the movie is too much coke and boobs and bad words and blah blah. This sucks because this (and the mixed reviews) will hurt the movie’s Oscar chances since IMO Leo does some dynamite acting shit here.

  50. Sheesh, some of our favourite movie posters are “floating heads”. Drew Struzan did often nothing but “floating heads” and everybody (rightfully) loves that guy and his work.

  51. I suppose “too on the nose” is my big issue with the poster. It’s literally like they polled a classroom of third-graders and picked the best idea.

  52. CJ Holden – “floating heads” refers to lazily photoshopped movie posters where all they do is take publicity photos of the actors heads and paste them onto the poster, not actual paintings of the actors

    this is my favorite example of a terrible floating head poster, it looks like the floating head of Angelina Jolie is going to eat that kid http://www.impawards.com/2008/changeling.html

  53. So why they don’t say “lazy photoshop posters”? And to be honest, those floating head things are still better than those, that REALLY are just publicity stills. Like this one: http://impawards.com/1997/as_good_as_it_gets.html

    What is it supposed to say us, other than “Jack Nicholson is in it, he’s happy and wearing sunglasses”? At least with the “floating head” posters, someone sat down for a few minutes and tried to do something.

  54. Meryl Streep presented an award to Emma Thompson at the National Board of Review and gave a speech where she repeated some of these anti-Disney myths, which of course was repeated and applauded without question all over the internet. So I was impressed by this guy on an animation websight who went through and corrected or gave proper context to all the things she brings up:


  55. A Norwegian journalist, Arne Skouen, who met Walt Disney in 1946 calls him “The Bad Uncle”. Everyone they met, Skouen says, seemed to be afraid of him. Most of the accusations made about his antisemitism and so on may have been discarded. But we do know that he was very active during senator McCarthy’s communist hunt and that he opposed unions agressively. So until proven otherwise – the Disney corporation has a mighty PR department – the best thing we can say about him is that he wasn’t as bad as Henry Ford.

  56. This might have been the best thing that Amid Amidi (who is usually known for bending facts until they fit his own agenda too [although in all fairness, mostly for pretty harmless and silly things like “PHINEAS & FERB is as bad as FAMILY GUY” or “All computer animated movies are awful”.]) has written in a while.

  57. grimgrinningchris

    February 9th, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    In expressing my admiration for Walt Disney, I’ve actually been told “you know Walt Disney was an outspoken anti-Semite? Right?”
    No, I didn’t. But I know you’re just quoting fucking Family Guy. Sheesh.

    And Pegsman: while I believe Disney to have been a genius and easily one of the 5 most important American figures of the 20th century, he was certainly not infallible. Despite his innumerable positive attributes and forward thinking, he was pretty politically naive. And he just loved America. You have to remember this was a time that communism was seen as a legitamite and very dangerous threat to the safety of not just America but the entire world, not just a different political system and ideology, so of COURSE he took part in the McCarthy hearings. Certainly NOT his finest hour, but an understandable one given…
    As for the union thing. Walt was not stingy, not was he against giving workers what they deserved. He was already giving his animator and other employees more than any other studio in town AND had built them a virtual Utopia to work in (he sunk every profit back into the company to improve its output, technology AND working conditions, never living as what we would now consider the life of a wealthy man held-at least not on his level) until after the success of Disneyland) while other animators sweated it out in miserable warehouse conversions- so when the unions came to all the animation studios (with their own agendas too, mind you) he felt personally betrayed. Paying and treating everyone better than anyone in town and it STILL wasnt enough? Again a completely normal reaction.

    Vern, doubtful you’ll see this now since the review is several weeks old now, but I just got out from spending 2 months in county lockup and this is my first Vern review as a free man. And being a Disney history buff and fan myself (with many of the same thoughts and feelings as you), I couldn’t have asked for a better one. A great belated Christmas gift!
    Thank you!!!

  58. Have anyone here seen EDUCATION FOR DEATH:THE MAKING OF A NAZI? It is a weird cartoon to release if you are a nazi.

  59. There’s a DTV (almost) film about Disney’s early career coming out

    Some of the acting looks a little dodgy and the trailer music doesn’t help, but I think it looks good. I liked BANKS well enough, but I couldn’t help but think there were more interesting chapters about Disney’s life (I’ve no particular affection or interest in MARY POPPINS), and it looks like I wasn’t alone. It looks like this will show a truly human Disney (Smoke! Anger!) while still celebrating his spirit and achievements. I did initially snigger at the thought of the least memorable one from the theatrical AMERICAN PIEses (I forgot he was in HALLOWEEN VS TV) playing Disney, but he actually looks fine

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>