Saving Mr. Banks (2013) … or Squandering Mr. Hanks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) … or Squandering Mr. Hanks May 9, 2014

Travers is not amused.

Dear moviegoers who enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks, including those among my friends and family,

I’m glad you had a good time at the movies.


I would be nothing but a snob if I scorned anybody for enjoying a heart-warming work of fiction like this one.

I recognize that there are a lot of things moviegoers will enjoy here:

  • Tom Hanks, being witty and skillful;
  • Emma Thompson, being amusing and… British;
  • nostalgic musical celebrations of Mary Poppins™;
  • Paul Giamatti, in warm and lovably congenial mode;
  • Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson finding some humanity in a child’s tragic flashbacks.

You see, Disney baked this big, heavily frosted cake to make people happy, and that’s what they’ve done.

But if you want to hang on to that warm feeling, you may just want to stop reading — because “happiness” is about the opposite of how I felt when I finally sat down to watch Saving Mr. Banks.

Travers is not amused.

I wanted to enjoy the movie the way you did. But I could not, and I’m going to explain why. You may think I’m just being impossible and unreasonable. You may roll your eyes just like Walt and the Sherman brothers—Richard and Robert—do in this movie whenever P. L. Travers voices her grievances about their plans to turn her beloved novel into a movie. Nobody likes a party-spoiler. Audiences are laughing at Travers’ obstinance because, well, most of us have had to deal with a stick-in-the-mud before. No wonder this movie is a crowdpleaser: It’s about joyful entertainers who find a way to bend a grouch to do what they want. To use the movie’s own words, it’s about “teaching the witch to be happy” — even though you can hear them thinking of a word that rhymes with “witch.”

I just want to ask two questions:

1) Do the ends justify the means?

That is to say: If an artist means to give audience a good time, does he have license to rewrite recent history so that the climax of the story is completely false, misrepresenting the character of the film’s central historical figure?

Many made a fuss when Spielberg’s Lincoln arrived because it testified that one congressman voted for slavery when, in fact, the record shows that he voted to abolish it. In Saving Mr. Banks, we have a far more egregious departure from the eyewitness testimonies.

But we’ll get back to the question of historical accuracy later. Most films that are ‘based on a true story” are revising that history in one way or another. Before we talk about how much revision is appropriate, let’s pretend that this movie gives us a “true story” … and get to my second question… the one that burns me like heartburn as I watch this film.

2)  The movie concludes with all of the fanfare of a Disney happy ending. But is this really a happy ending? Or is it a tragedy?

Seriously, how is this a happy ending?

Travers is still not amused.

Saving Mr. Banks tells us a story in which two misguided characters clash over a collaboration. One of them has a warm, welcoming personality, and he just so happens to be a beloved figure in entertainment history. The other is relatively unknown by audiences, and she’s shown to be unpleasant, bitter, and exasperating. We’re talking about personalities here. But personalities and convictions are two different things. To the audience’s delight, Mr. Nice Guy prevails over Mrs. Madness. But what really happened here? Was Mr. Nice Guy really “the Good Guy” who should have prevailed?

I’ll tell you what happens in this movie: A businessman takes away an artist’s personal vision and refashions it to what will please the majority rather than what will convey what the artist meant to express in the first place. He has done so by putting her under tremendous pressure, driving her into a decision she doesn’t want to make. And this is tragic because, all along the way, his own ideas were good enough that he could have built his own original story without stealing a storyteller’s property and causing her great distress.

I have a personal aversion to Christian pop music that copies the sound and style of mainstream artists and rewrites the words into pandering praise lyrics. In the same way, I’m allergic to the way that Walt Disney Sudios has plundered the treasure chest of children’s stories, legends, fables, and fairy tale — ripping the big, beating hearts from those stories’ chests and replacing them with mechanical Disney cliches. Disney often tells us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. Until recent years, when some admirable exceptions have arrived (thanks to the influence of storytellers like Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, and John Lasseter), almost every family film that Disney has produced has been a cliché-heavy story of “follow your heart” or “find your Prince Charming.”

Is she amused? No. Travers is not amused.

In Saving Mr. Banks, we see Disney as the Evangelist of Crowdpleasing determining to exploit the work of Travers as the “unbeliever.” It ends by providing a Happy Ending that celebrates Disney’s own legacy, and that forces the character of Travers to end up weeping in the realization that Disney’s vision is superior…

… which (and now we’re back to Question 1) isn’t what happened.

In taking on the story of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, director John Lee Hancock and his collaborators had a chance to tell what is, in truth, a story rich with provocative questions about telling the truth, about collaboration, about art, about entertainment, and about how artists can give the world tremendous gifts that have been made from the wounds they’ve suffered. Instead, they’ve made a film that Disney is right from the beginning, and that the only proper way to end the movie is to revise history and force Travers to bow to his superior wisdom.

You can see from the very beginning that this isn’t a movie about art… it’s a movie about breaking the stick-in-the-mud.

“The creator of our beloved Mary!” shouts Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford).

“Poppins,” says Travers. “Never, ever just ‘Mary.'”

Given a moment to reflect, Travers is not amused.

Immediately Travers is portrayed as impossible. But doesn’t she have the right to ask people to respect her work, whatever her personality? The name “Mary Poppins” does, indeed, give us a different impression than just Mary. Surely she has the right to impress that upon the storytellers. It sounds wise to me. But the moment is staged to make us laugh at her ridiculousness, and to sympathize immediately with the Disney storytellers who see Mary Poppins as theirs… already!

Disney is portrayed as a longsuffering saint, bent on blessing the world by prying treasure free of the greedy hands of the person who found it, who owns it. Or, as I saw it, he plays a corporate CEO who is so used to getting his way that he’s insulted when a mother won’t easily hand over her dearest child to be despoiled of her lessons and brought up all over again from the beginning to suit his fancy.

I don’t for five minutes believe that this film’s “What Really Happened” story is much like what really happened at all. It’s all too Holly-wood-ified and all-star-cast-ified.

Thompson understands that she’s supposed to play Travers as stubborn and demanding. But when we finally hear Travers’ real voice during the film’s closing credits, we learn just how exaggerated Thompson’s performance has been. She’s played a sort of Saturday-Night-Live caricature. I’m guessing that the filmmakers asked Thompson to watch Downtown Abbey and play Travers the way that Dame Maggie Smith would have played her—furrow-browed, scornful, aloof, stubborn, nose turned up.


The whole time, I was left wondering one simple question: If Disney wanted to tell his own version of the story so badly, why not just change the names and tell the story he felt was best? Why must there only be one story about a nanny who comes to help children struggling in a dark and money-corrupted world? People write derivative stories all the time? Why did the film have to have the title, the names, and the direct association with Travers?

One reason: Money. The book was so beloved — so beloved for what it was — that Disney new he’d draw a huge audience if he could exploit that popularity. For all that he’s saying about taking this character that his daughter loves and putting her on the screen, well… he’s not bringing that character or that story to the screen. He’s bringing something quite different altogether.

“You don’t know what she means to me,” Travers tells Disney. And the movie, trying to salvage Disney’s character, gives him intimate moments where he reveals to her that he understands better than she does.

And before the movie is over, we’ll see her weeping in ecstasy as the movie breaks her heart with its beauty.

That is not what happened, apparently.

Travers the Unamused.

I’m all for artistic license, but not when the studio rewrites history to glorify its namesake at the expense of someone else. Here is a Disney movie telling us that the wrong-headed artist finally caved in and bowed down to him, when Travers reportedly wept through the movie because she was so upset about having her child ripped from her hands and brought up to be something quite contrary to her wishes.

Steven Greydanus is far more forgiving in his attitude toward this film than I can be, but he does say,

Saving Mr. Banks is history written by the winner: a Disney movie that regales us with just how ridiculously hard a prickly, capricious British authoress made it for our Uncle Walt to bring us Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in one of the most beloved family films of all time.

Walt won that war of wills and Disneyfied Mary Poppins; now, adding insult to injury, he’s Disneyfied her creator, playing her abrasive personality for laughs as well as making her more conventional than she seems to have been. Travers has become a ridiculous creature of fun, just as she feared Mary Poppins would be. The closer Saving Mr. Banks is to history, which I suspect is not very, the more deeply it would doubtless have enraged Travers.

Perhaps if you love Disney’s Mary Poppins, you can shake your head indulgently at Travers’ misguided efforts to thwart the cinematic apotheosis of her magical nanny: Some people just don’t know what’s good for them. I confess I’ve never fallen under Mary Poppins’ spell, either on the screen or on the page, but for what it’s worth, my sympathies are rather more with Travers than with Disney.

Read more:

And  I find myself nodding along with Amy Nicholson as she writes:

Why does it matter that Saving Mr. Banks sabotages its supposed heroine? Because in a Hollywood where men still pen 85 percent of all films, there’s something sour in a movie that roots against a woman who asserted her artistic control by asking to be a co-screenwriter. (Another battle she lost — Mary Poppins‘ opening credits list Travers as merely a “consultant.”) Just as slimy is the sense that this film, made by a studio conglomerate in a Hollywood dominated by studio conglomerates, is tricking us into cheering for the corporation over the creator. We take sides because we can’t imagine living in a world without the songs the Sherman brothers wrote for the film: “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Feed the Birds,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” We wouldn’t have had to either way; if Mary Poppins had collapsed, Walt planned to package up the songs wholesale for Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Saving Mr. Banks would have been a meaningful contribution to the Disney legacy if it had actually portrayed P.L. Travers. But Richard Brody concludes:

Travers’s life left plenty of fascinating backstory for Hancock and his screenwriters to explore. But by narrowing it to her childhood in Australia, they elide the underlying cultural conflict between her and Disney—the age-old confrontation between art and commerce, between uninhibited personal expression and commercial bowdlerization—and reduced it to a story of two adults who still have issues with their fathers.

Travers would have been right to suspect that Hollywood—and, especially, Disney—could never show anything like intimate life as she knew it to be. Had “Saving Mr. Banks” shown Travers in all her complexity, it would have redeemed the studio’s honor—would have proven that a family-friendly movie could expand its definition of family to embrace those which, formerly, were beyond the studios’ purview. It would have been a vision of progress—or, dare I say, of hope. Instead, perversely, the movie of 2013 reënacts the willful omissions, the moralistic elisions from a movieland more than half a century old.

It would be very easy to create a Cape Fear-like “Fake Trailer” for this film in which Travers is a wounded, panic-stricken artist struggling to escape Disney the Stalker Businessman. That’s the movie I’d rather see, actually. It would be far more interesting. It would also be, unlike Saving Mr. Banks, based on true story.

Instead, what we get is It’s supercalifragilisticexpiali-shameless. A spoonful can help the medicine go down, but it can also trick audiences into swallowing a lie.

The biggest shame of all is that this is how Disney squandered our opportunity to see Tom Hanks play Walt Disney. He’s perfect for the part. And with the right script, they could have made an extraordinary film about one of history’s most influential imaginations.

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7 responses to “Saving Mr. Banks (2013) … or Squandering Mr. Hanks”

  1. It always struck me as a weird notion for a film…It’s a Disneyfication of a woman struggling against the Disneyfication of her work.

    The other kind of weird element which was touched on, is the flashback sequences, which involve her Dad. Any time you have a story about a woman clashing with a man, and you juxtapose that when her interactions with her father…it’s pretty much meant to undermine any valid complaints the female character was making, because it redefines everything as her Daddy issues.

  2. I agree that it’s unfair, that what really happened to the author was wicked and exposes a dark side to Disney.
    I can understand why the company Disney wouldn’t want to show the truth as it was and fear that perhaps it would make the audience dislike Disney and stop watching their movies (lol, the company has insecurities).
    Perhaps someone /other/ than Disney should have made the film about the making of Mary Poppins… but then Disney’s company may have accused them of trying to make Disney look bad. Maybe it’s too soon for them to have made a film about it in the first place. It’s a touchy subject either way, trying to make themselves feel better about the past… and deceiving people in the process… or making a movie that shows, not the picture of perfect Walt Disney that a few people have in their heads, but someone who was also greedy and manipulative… and make us sad.

    Because many of us don’t have preconceived feelings about who P. L. Travers was, it must have been easier for them to make her the “villain”. Every story needs an antagonist of some sort, but they shouldn’t have made the creator the villain.
    I myself haven’t seen Saving Mr. Banks yet, though I know many who are big fans of it, but I will see it, and will probably try to enjoy it as /fiction/ and keep in mind that it wasn’t how it really happened, that the truth was much more complicated than this.
    I’m sure we all have dreams of what could have been, instead of what really has been made, when it comes to many movies that ruined the stories they were based off of. Or even movies that disappointed us because we thought everything was going to go a certain way… and then it wasn’t and was just… flat.

    Mary Poppins may not be popular today if it wasn’t for Walt Disney… though he completely changed it. Reminds me slightly of how the musical Oliver! tried to dress the original story in light and fun songs (I must admit they are catchy, though my sister hates them)… when the real story was quite dark and not happy.

    When you think about it, there are countless versions of fairy tales, like Cinderella, for instance. Many for each culture have been created over generations, and I’ve been reading/watching the different versions, and it’s interesting how different angles are presented, portraying the characters as sometimes slightly different, and sometimes as very different from other versions of the tale that it feels like a completely different story. In some versions of the tale, she is a passive character who does nothing but cry three times a day till someone helps her out… and in other versions she is crafty and figures out how to get to the festival on her own, and only leaves when she wants to (no threat of her clothes turning back into rags) and hiding up in a tall tree. In some versions, the Prince is so very clueless, and in others he is quite mean. Few people feel guilty about writing a new version of the tale… because no one knows who first created the story (a very early version was around in Egypt… a few hundred AD I think). What are your thoughts about that?

  3. Of course, if Travers didn’t want mean ol’ corporate greedy Walt Disney to bastardize her beloved characters, she could have — oh, I don’t know — not sold him the rights. She could have gone out and looked for the money to produce her own film, or shopped the rights to someone else. But she didn’t do any of those things. Instead, she sold Mary Poppins to Walt Disney Pictures. I suppose money was on her mind, too.

    As far as the idea that Walt could *even* bastardize something that didn’t previously exist, it’s ridiculous. In this case, as in all such cases where Disney and other filmmakers are so accused, Disney did not pull Mary Poppins books off of shelves and edit them, reworking Mary into Julie Andrews. Mrs. Travers vision for the nanny and the Banks family is wholly in tact exactly as she intended them, for all the world to experience, without any Mouseified alterations. You can’t ruin something that did not previously exist. Disney made a film based on the characters and story that Travers wrote…he did not make a film version of Travers’ novel. The novel is unchanged. Mary Poppins, as Travers wrote her, still exists 100% Disney free.

    • True, true. The truth is still out there for all to enjoy.

      And yet, at that time, if you asked who Mary Poppins was, people would tell you about Travers’ character, Travers’ story. Now, around the world, ask who Mary Poppins is, and they tell you about Disney’s reinvention. How many, I wonder, have followed the movie to the book. Some, sure.

      I love the characters in my novels. I love the stories I worked hard to imagine and share. I’ll remain poor, probably, relative to those who hand their visions over for the Disney treatment. But at least I know that Auralia and the Ale Boy and Cal-raven won’t ever represent anything like manic pixie dream girls or hobbit-like adventurers or just another Peter Jackson sword-wielder with a confidence crisis.

      It would be hard for me to read Travers’ book now without having my experience tainted by the film. Too bad, because apparently the book was beloved, once upon a time.

      • Well, I can’t say I much care for the dishonesty in Saving Mr. Banks either, although I don’t entirely agree with your reading of some of the scenes. (For example, I don’t read Travers’ tears during the premiere as any kind of capitulation to Disney’s version of the story.)

        But I will absolutely defend the brilliance and integrity of Disney’s Mary Poppins as a film, a work in itself, even if it fails as an adaptation of the books. I remember, a few years ago, one of my favorite film critics defending Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men as a film, notwithstanding the liberties it took with its source material.

        • I haven’t heard stories about P. D. James in anguish over the movie, or fighting to ensure that her story be told in the adaptation. And Cuaron was quite up-front about his disinterest in her story… he admitted that he didn’t even read the book, but was intrigued only by the premise. So I don’t feel nearly as interested marching out to protest injustice on that one. And I don’t disagree with you about Mary Poppins being a wonderful film. I just wish it didn’t use the names from Travers’ book.

  4. Thanks for this! What with what I knew about the Disney legacy, something in this film didn’t sit right with me: I’m glad you’ve put your finger so pointedly onto it! If you haven’t read this essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan, it includes some great research he did into the powerful land grab Disney made to secure the spot for Disneyworld in Florida. Great stuff!

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