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Is Saving Mr. Banks Just Disney Propaganda? If So, Does It Matter?

NOTE: There will be plenty of spoilers for Saving Mr. Banks in the below article.  You’ve been warned.

In Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney and Emma Thomson as P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins children’s book which was originally published in 1934.  The basic story is that in the early 1960s Disney wanted to do, well, the Disney thing with the book and turn it into a live action film featuring nonsensical songs the masses would involuntarily hum as they left the theaters.  Travers, on the other hand, held the intellectual property rights meaning everything had to first go through her before the movie could happen, and she was most certainly not a mouse ears-wearing member of the Mickey Mouse Club.  Disney was ever so Disney about it (“But Pamela, think about the children”), and Travers was ever so British about it (“Oh, poppycock, and don’t you dare ever again begin a sentence with a conjunction around me!  Plus, what have I told you about referring to me by my first name.  You know full well you are to call me Ms. Travers or Ms. or nothing at all”).

If you have yet to see the movie, just watch the trailer and imagine a couple more flashbacks with Colin Farrell as Travers’ father in Australia and you’ve pretty much seen the movie, right down to the final scene between Disney and Travers when the former finally wears down the latter.

The film is of sufficient merit to have received generally favorable critical reviews (81% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes), even if noted critic David Edelstein recently listed it as one of the worst films of 2013.  It has a tentative seat at the table among awards contenders, although perhaps only a contender for an acting nomination or two (the Golden Globes gave it one nomination: Best Actress for Emma Thompson).  At the box office, it opened a bit softer than expected before surging nearly 50% over Christmas.  It now has a total domestic/worldwide gross of $40 million/$45 million, which is but a drop in the wide ocean that is Disney’s financial empire but still not bad after two weeks of wide release for a film which cost $35 million to make.  Audiences (at least opening night audiences) appear to like it, grading it as an A on CinemaScore’s A-F scale.

Tom Hanks Walt Disney
Walt Disney on left, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney on right. Hanks is the first person to play Walt Disney on film.

So, where’s the problem?  Well, for some – like David Edelstein – the spoonful of sentimental sugar that is the film’s surface simply distracts from the harder-to-swallow medicine of clear Disney propaganda.  This is, after all, a Disney produced film about the making of a classic Disney film-Mary Poppins-which, not coincidentally, is reaching its 50th anniversary just in time for an anniversary Blu-Ray release to be pushed during the holidays.  Of course-the argument goes-the story told will present P.L. Travers as the villain of the piece to Walt Disney’s ever avuncular hero.  It is not in Disney’s best corporate interests to tell a story which makes them look bad.  Plus, the audience comes to the film presumably with an awareness and possibly affinity for Mary Poppins, which BBC film critic Mark Kermode has repeatedly praised as being a perfect film.  Saving Mr. Banks is not the story of how that amazing film got made, but instead of the mean British woman who almost stopped it from happening but had her cold heart at least partially thawed by the unique charms of Walt Disney and the Disney machine.

This line of criticism is neither unexpected nor is it completely invalid.  However, it might sell Saving Mr. Banks a bit short.  There are certain factual realities of Walt Disney the person as well as long-standing criticisms of the Disney corporation that do not go unacknowledged.  There are also certain unflattering things which go notably unmentioned.

  • Fact: Walt Disney was a chain smoker for the entirety of his adult life, ultimately dying in 1965 (less than two years after the release of Mary Poppins) from lung cancer-related complications.
  • Saving Mr. Banks: Upon learning of the intention to use a cartoon sequence in Mary Poppins, Travers bursts into Disney’s office, catching him off-guard.  He has a cigarette in his hand, which he quickly extinguishes in an ashtray while explaining how he never lets anyone see him smoking (especially children) for fear of encouraging emulation of his admittedly nasty habit.  We never see him actually smoke, and the film takes place before Disney had been diagnosed with lung cancer.  
  • Fact: Walt Disney got pretty much everything he wanted with Mary Poppins while most of Travers’ recommendations were ultimately ignored.
  • Saving Mr. Banks: Travers objects to the design of the Banks’ house, the mere suggestion of casting Dick Van Dyke, the usage of the color red, and depicting Mr. Banks as having a moustache, the latter because that’s how he was drawn in the pictures which her publisher provided with her novels but she never approved and wished to now rectify.  However, Disney eventually comes to understand how much Mary Poppins was born out of personal tragedy involving Travers’ alcoholic father, consoling her over this and arguing for the therapeutic process that will be her finally letting go.  Once Travers finally signs away the film rights, we cut to the Mary Poppins premiere where we quickly see indications that every single suggestion made by Travers has gone ignored – there’s Van Dyke on the poster with the color red prominently displayed and Mr. Banks depicted with a moustache.  Travers is shown to be resigned but nonetheless dismayed when she observes all of these aspects in the movie’s poster.  There are actually multiple other requests Travers made which went ignored by Disney but are not mentioned in Saving Mr. Banks.
  • Fact: P.L. Travers was not originally invited to the Los Angeles premiere of Mary Poppins, but managed to eventually guilt Disney into inviting her.  At the actual premiere, she surprisingly wept.  She would later claim to it being a combination of the surprise of seeing the name Mary Poppins on the screen as well as the horror at seeing what Disney had done to her characters.  At the after-party, she tracked Disney down and loudly proclaimed the first thing to go would have to be the dancing cartoon penguin sequence.  Disney responded, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.”  Travers had final script approval, but Disney had the final cut approval, meaning his-not her-word was truly final.  Travers was so incensed in reaction to this perceived mistreatment she refused the future efforts of the Disney Corporation to adapt any more of her Mary Poppins novels into sequel films.  Travers would again echo her anti-Disney sentiment much later in life when attempting to adapt her novel into a stage musical with famed producer Cameron Mackintosh.
  • Saving Mr. Banks: Travers simply shows up in Los Angeles to guilt an annoyed Disney into inviting her.  At the premiere, she openly weeps throughout Mary Poppins, overcome with emotion, flooded with remembrances of her father in relation to scenes in the film.  At one point, Disney attempts to console her, promising her that Mr. Banks will be okay, a suggestion she fights off by merely claiming she is crying over hating the cartoon penguins.  Disney is shown to be annoyed with never quite pleasing her, but the implication is that she is putting up a front and is instead finally reaching some closure over the death of her father.   There is no hint of further acrimony between the two parties nor does she make any suggestion about altering the film in any way.
  • Disney Criticism: The theme park is a shallow commercial venture.
  • Saving Mr. Banks: Disney attempts to sway Travers to his charms by escorting her to a morning at his theme park, but Travers mostly wants nothing to do with it, abhorring every aspect of the park until an automated horse carousel proves moderately enjoyable before triggering a sad flashback involving Travers’ alcoholic father.  Later on, Disney explains the significance of one of the windows in his theme park as being a reminder of his rough life as a child laborer with a difficult father while growing up in Missouri.
Thompson on the left, Travers on the right.
Thompson on the left, Travers on the right.

One could argue that this all paints a more interesting story than Saving Mr. Banks is actually willing to tell.  However, if one should so desire a more even-handed approach to the story there are multiple documentaries on the subject (The Real Mary Poppins, The Shadow Of Mary Poppins) as well as an extensive biography (Mary Poppins She Wrote).  

Does any of this actually make Saving Mr. Banks a bad movie?  No.  There is always going to be issues of dramatic license with stories based upon actual events, and as articulately argued by FilmSchoolRejects there is something even more discomforting than normal here:

Saving Mr. Banks seeks to speak on behalf of two subjects: the assumed creative genius (Disney) and the person who signed off her intellectual property to the assumed creative genius (Travers). In doing so, Disney no longer simply owns the adaptation, but seeks to own the process and terms of that adaptation.

In other word, in life Disney screwed Travers over (even if she profited from it financially), and now in death he has done so again.  However, the arguments Saving Mr. Banks makes about Travers’ personal tragedy which led to the creation of Mary Poppins to begin with is by most accounts factually accurate and powerful dramatic material.  Saving Mr. Banks is at times too schmaltzy, but it is a perfectly fine film, thinly drawn at first before it reveals more about the principal players – Travers and Disney.  It cleverly utilizes an entirely fictional limousine driver (Paul Giamatti) as a way of making Travers more sympathetic.

However, such historical adaptations are rarely ever so nakedly self-serving – a Disney film about a Disney story.  That formula is far too nauseating for some to bare, as is the way Saving Mr. Banks acknowledges unsympathetic facts and criticisms before spinning them into Disney-friendly positives.  Vaguely similar criticisms were made earlier this year of The Internship, e.g., it’s just a giant commercial for Google.  However, The Internship isn’t a bad movie because of its Google connections but instead because it’s simply not that funny.  Is it possible to judge Saving Mr. Banks on its own merits as a movie?

FilmSchoolRejects concluded their reaction to Saving Mr. Banks thusly:

Over the end credits of Saving Mr. Banks, a tape plays uninterrupted that depicts real audio of Travers’ recorded script negotiations. It’s an enticing gesture of transparency, a symbolic opening of the tightly regulated Disney vaults. Yet this, like the cigarette moment, encapsulates something essential about Saving Mr. Banks‘ careful tango with history: it’s a friendly nod at open dialogue and self-evaluation, but one that’s only interested in a conversation in which the terms have already been set.

They’re not wrong.  However, does that mean you can’t enjoy Saving Mr. Banks?  And are we really that surprised that the spin goes Disney’s way instead of Travers;?

What do you think?  Just because a film project has a corporate agenda inherently weakens its merits?  Has no effect?  Let us know what you think in the comments section.

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5 comments

    1. First off, apologies if my article spoiled the movie for you since you haven’t seen it. I forgot to put a spoiler warning up but have now done so. As for the actual movie, we were of different opinions around these parts but neither opinion was negative. My sometimes co-writer Juli LOVED Saving Mr. Banks, and she went into it with high expectations based upon her great love and childhood nostalgia for Marry Poppins. I merely liked Saving Mr. Banks, went in thinking the trailer gave away the entire movie and walked away thinking I was right, and have only ever seen Marry Poppins one time and have no great fondness nor hatred for it. Due to our different views of Marry Poppins, the parts of Saving Mr. Banks she liked the most involved the actual creation of the film (e.g., how certain songs were written) whereas I was easily most enamored with the flashback stuff with Colin Farrel as I cared little about Marry Poppins the movie and more about PL Travers the historical figure. Ultimately, Mr. Banks wouldn’t come anywhere near a top 5 movies of 2013 list for me or anything, but I did actually like it. I struggled more with the Disney propaganda stuff than Juli, but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the movie. My main problem was with Emma Thompson who starts out as such a stereotype of a British woman I wanted to punch the movie, if that were to be somehow possible. It’s as it progressed and we see more about her that I was won over.

      1. I don’t feel like you had any spoilers that weren’t, as you said in the review, given away by watching the trailer.

        There definitely seems to be a bit of a conflict of interest with Disney making the film… But then, that’s somewhat what they are going for, right? Owning the conversation, both sides of it. I’ll just definitely be interested to see the film!

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