All words: Ross Bonaime
I always find the battle between artistic integrity and studio giants to be fascinating. It’s crazy that we live in a world where a little over a decade ago, directors like Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron were making low budget, yet fascinating masterpieces, yet they now work in the studio system, keeping what made them exciting in the first place, now with millions of dollars at their fingertips. Saving Mr. Banks is about the battle that occurs when an artist doesn’t want to lose what makes her idea so special in the face of a behemoth that wants nothing more than to change it all.
Saving Mr. Banks stars Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, who vehemently denied Walt Disney, played here by Tom Hanks, the access to her beloved story for over two decades. So in a last ditch effort to earn the rights, Disney flies Travers out to California to win her over with a bit of Disney magic. She states that she wants both script approval and no animation and makes the lives of everyone at Disney a living hell to dissuade Disney. She immediately clashes with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), quibbling over the most minor of details.
While this may make Travers seem unreasonable, the film shows just why this story meant so much to her, flashing back to her childhood growing up in Australia and her drunk father (Colin Farrell) that the character of Mr. Banks was based on. Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t make Travers or Disney the villain, but instead makes the possibility of compromise the wanted result.
This might be Saving Mr. Banks’ biggest problem. By creating a Disney film that allows the film to recreate events in Walt Disney’s life, it does allow the victor to write history the way they see it. Travers famously hated the resulting film, yet we don’t get a glimpse at her true feelings. As we see Travers’ demands, it almost becomes a joke that the film became less of a compromise and more of an artist giving up, as she complains about elements of the film that have famously become parts of one of Disney’s most famous live-action films.
Yet does this matter? Is it a problem that a film created by Disney about Disney is one-sided towards Disney? I don’t believe so, since film isn’t necessarily about telling the entire truth, but rather telling the best possible story. Would the film have been as effective had we seen that Travers’ fighting had all been for nothing, as she leaves the premiere not in tears of joy but tears of anger? Maybe it would have been even more powerful. But as much as an objective film can be made by a clearly subjective studio, Saving Mr. Banks not only tries to show both sides in an effective way, but also explain the pros and cons of each side winning.
Director John Lee Hancock has shown in the past, especially with the obliviously and ridiculously optimistic The Blind Side, that he can make his films too uplifting to be effective, but doesn’t so much with Saving Mr. Banks. By balancing the filmmaking process with the true past of these characters, we get to see the darker underbelly of what ended up being a musical that has Dick Van Dyke singing and dancing with penguins.
But what really makes Saving Mr. Banks wonderful, despite the historical inaccuracies and picking and choosing of truths is the phenomenal acting. Thompson is at the top of her game, showing a tough exterior that is only truly paper thin, while Hanks (coming off what may be my favorite performance of his in Captain Phillips) plays Disney as the complete opposite: positive on the outside with darkness lurking underneath. Farrell is also fantastic in a role that requires him to make his family choose imagination over harsh reality, even when his drinking is the catalyst for the majority of the problems. The phenomenal supporting cast, which also features Paul Giamatti and Rachel Griffiths, can be one-note at times, but each character does feel like they all have a larger story that we’re only getting a glimpse of.
Look, we’re not going to get a film about Disney without having Walt Disney Studios’ fingers dipping into it, and because of that Saving Mr. Banks is probably the best the studio can do. Yet even with this, it does try to be as balanced as it possibly can, while also giving some amazing performances from Thompson and Farrell and a fine supporting cast. Saving Mr. Banks might not be 100% historically accurate, but it is an intriguing look at what happens when a David goes against a Goliath.