Walt Disney attempts to tell its own story in a star-studded, highly-glossed package.
The Disney money-making machine was in full frenzy this holiday season, with the release of their new CG-animated musical, Frozen — another in a long line of imitators trying to relive the glory days of the former animation powerhouse, while desperately hoping to remain hip to today’s youngest generation. This time around, the difference is that both critics and audiences seem quite taken with it. But Disney has another holiday offering in theaters that is meant to court the nostalgia market of older viewers, who long for the Disney Studios of old. Saving Mr. Banks is that film, and while it has moments that bring about memories of that old Walt Disney charm and style, it is just as sanitized, glossed over, and saccharine-sweet as any of their other recent “family movie” offerings. It also fulfills Hollywood’s tradition of having one big self-important pat on the back film in release this time of year that is meant to celebrate their “greatest” achievements without ever offending anyone.
Saving Mr. Banks tells the tale of Walt Disney’s final year in a two-decade struggle to obtain the rights to P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books, in order to fulfill a promise to his children that he would bring the beloved character to the screen. The film portrays the creation of what would become one of the last big hit movies Disney would have the pleasure of seeing released before his death — but the heated tension between Travers and Disney during the pre-production process is only the surface. The real story on the film’s mind has to do with the relationship between fathers and daughters, and why Mrs. Travers became such a pompous stick-in-the-mud to begin with. The film uses flashbacks to tell this tale, and while they certainly provide the backbone of the picture, they also become a distracting nuisance due to poor editing choices and an over-reliance on their apparent self-importance. Colin Farrell surprisingly shows up in said flashbacks, playing Travers’s fun-loving alcoholic father. He teaches his daughter great life lessons, like how to skip out on work to go drinking, or what a great idea it is to knock back a few before giving important company speeches, or how to drive your wife to suicide while nursing a bottle! Through it all Travers loves her father, even in her much older age, and never places an ounce of blame on poor ol’ dad. And who can blame her? Farrell plays Travers Goff (she even takes her father’s first name) with such a sense of freewheeling good time fun, you would be hard-pressed to find a child who wouldn’t admire his spirit. When the deadly effects of his alcoholism start setting in, the result is morbidly comic. The film leans so heavily on Travers’s quest to forgive, redeem and preserve the memory of her father that it buckles under all that self-righteous weight.
There is probably no actor alive better suited to play Walt Disney than Tom Hanks. He is America’s modern day Jimmy Stewart: an all-American boy who can do no wrong. He always has that genuine twinkle in his eye, a presence warm enough to hug, and a smile as charming as Christmas. Hanks has a joyous time with the role, always playing up Disney’s infectious personality while grounding him in the film’s quieter moments. Most of Disney’s demons are skimmed over, but the filmmakers do have a bit of fun with Disney hiding his chain-smoking habit from his impressionable young fans (and this film’s audience). Unfortunately, Saving Mr. Banks isn’t really Disney’s tale, so he is left on the sidelines for much of the picture’s 125 minute running time. The other supporting players provide strong work in their limited roles, but it’s a shame to hire acting greats such as Paul Giamatti and Rachel Griffiths only to give them a thinly-drawn character sketch and a couple of throwaway lines to work with.
Banks is dominated by the presence of Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, and anytime she is on screen she elevates the material tenfold. Her Travers is stuffy, strong willed, icily cunning, stingingly witty, and oh-so-very British even though she is from Down Under. Thompson is careful to never make her too unlikable, but she also never shies away from her uglier attributes. She walks a tightrope between sweet comedy and blunt drama with nary a misstep, and it is a testament to her great skills that even though the flashbacks fall flat, her present-time emotional reactions to them ring true. She also sells the more cloyingly sentimental moments, like the creation of the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, with heartfelt joy. It’s near impossible not to shed a tear or two during these sequences, thanks to her great gifts and that brief flash of Disney magic. Emma Thompson manages to give one of the best performances of the year in a film of overwhelming mediocrity.
Director John Lee Hancock has become something of a specialty director in this category of filmmaking (previous efforts include The Blind Side and The Rookie). Obviously there is a market for this feel-good, no-substance nonsense, but do they all have to be so remarkably dull and predictable? Mary Poppins was never a particularly good movie, but it had moments of greatness. It also has generations of fans who know every song, and worship that undying Disney magic that soared through every film he ever produced. Certainly this tale and those fans deserved a better and more honest telling of cinematic history. Though Walt Disney branded his own good-guy image and founded the empire that has taken over the marketplace today, I doubt he would recognize his own company anymore. Their reliance on CG animation, and the destruction of the hand-drawn animation department, would have broken Disney’s heart — and their desire for mountains of cash over producing a quality product has corrupted a once golden standard of children’s entertainment. I would like to believe the old “Walt Disney magic” is still there, awaiting a new studio head to discover it. But at the moment, it seems as dead as Disney himself.