The general public reserve a large degree of cynicism for anything made by the Disney corporation, which I’ve always felt was understandable, though not always entirely warranted. There are, of course, plenty of good targets for cynicism: the recent human rights injustices carried out by the NSA, people who don’t put their hand in front of their mouth when they cough in public, anyone whose music taste amounts to liking “anything with a good beat”. Yet by contrast, Disney, who are mostly guilty of being nauseatingly optimistic, seem hardly worth getting worked up over.
It’s hard to argue, too, that Disney are unaware of their reputation: Saving Mr Banks, their latest outing starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, is perhaps proof of this. It tells the story of P.L. Tavers (Thompson), author of the Mary Poppins books, who notoriously loathed the Disney adaptation of her books, and who believed she had been cheated by the Disney corporation.
Shifting between the writer’s childhood in Australia in 1907 and her negotiations with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in California in 1961, the film portrays Tavers as a hard-nosed curmudgeon who, beneath the surface, is really just vulnerable and tormented by her past. As a child her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) smothered her in a fantasy world and in consequence she spends her adult life refusing to suffer fools gladly.
One such fool is Mr Disney himself of whom Tavers it seems has a terribly low opinion. She loathes his cartoons and is deeply concerned that they are loud, obvious and prosaic. Agreeing only to meet with him in California because she needs the money, she insists on not handing over the rights until she knows for certain that the film will meet her impossibly high standards.
For the most part her trip is not a pleasant one. Upon arriving at her Disney hotel suite, Tavers is perplexed to discover that her room is filled with enormous cuddly Disney Toys, of which she promptly disposes by shoving them into a nearby wardrobe. She doesn’t especially enjoy California and warms only to one American during her time in the US: her sweet and ever-optimistic chauffer (Paul Giamatti), whose many attempts to address Tavers by her correct title (he eventually settles on calling her simply “Mrs”) are some of the film’s funniest moments.
Many laughs also come from Tavers’ long and fruitless meetings with Walt Disney, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and film composers the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak). Insisting that every second of these negotiations is captured on tape, Tavers takes exception to almost everything, from the studio’s decision to cast Dick Van Dyke to the abbreviation of the word exterior (“EXT”) in the script.
Much less interesting are the parts set in 1907, which serve seemingly to soften the audience’s opinion of Tavers and to explain how the author found the inspiration for many of her characters, including the character of Mr Banks, who is in part based on her unpredictable father. However, the shift in tone, from the humorous negotiations in 1961 to these significantly less interesting parts, is rather jarring, feeling almost as though two entirely different films (one very good, one much less so) have been spliced together.
Hanks and Thompson’s performances are what save the film as a whole. In the hands of a less talented actress, Tavers might have been portrayed as a villain or as an unredeemable old crank. Yet Thompson is seamlessly likeable in the role, never coming across as misanthropic, only ever as an amusing cynic. Likewise, Hanks is able to bring personality to the role of Walt Disney, something it is sometimes easy to presume Mr Disney lacked, judging him only by his on-screen appearances next to Mickey Mouse.
But Saving Mr Banks isn’t entirely without the glossed-on Disney effect. Despite being full of plenty of amusing anti-Disney sentiments, and though it can hardly be described as saccharine, the edges have been rounded off some to extent. The ending of the film, for instance, suggests that Tavers came around to liking the Disney adaptation of her books, when in fact she spent the rest of her life expressing otherwise.
It seems likely that the Tavers portrayed in Saving Mr Banks would feel cheated to learn how the company she disliked so intensely are somewhat rewriting her past. By giving the story a happy ending Disney seem a lot closer to the shady corporation Walt Disney spends much of the film trying to persuade P.L. Tavers they are not. But it’s hard to deny, from an outsider’s perspective at least, that Saving Mr Banks is an enjoyable and often very funny film. It’s just best to watch it the way in which all Disney films should be watched—with some cynicism.
Saving Mr Banks will be released nationwide on November 29th, 2013