Any time a film purports to be “based on a true story,” it’s an invitation for moviegoers to accept the general, if not the specific, parameters of that story as objectively true, along, of course, with whatever emotional and/or universal truths lie at the center of that story, but when that purportedly true story involves the studio’s sanctified founder, moviegoers should question the veracity of that story and ask themselves why Disney (the studio, not the late founder) made the film – in this case, Saving Mr. Banks – made a slickly produced period drama set over a two-week period in 1961 as Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) attempts to secure the film rights to P.L. Travers’ popular children’s novel, Mary Poppins, and to what underlying (or, if you prefer, overriding) purpose. The latter answer, of course, lies in the depiction of Disney as a benevolent patriarch and businessman (“CEO Knows Best”) and the polishing of the Disney brand (both the founder and more importantly, the studio).
That Saving Mr. Banks plays fast and loose with historical facts (i.e., “dramatic license”) isn’t a surprise; it’s actually a given. That Saving Mr. Banks rewrites history in service of selling Disney as the aforementioned benevolent patriarch, however, should be. In part, it’s the result of mainstream filmmaking and its exclusive reliance on three-act structure: well-defined, easily digestible character arcs, and a catharsis/closure-heavy climax and denouement that will leave moviegoers emotionally satisfied, even uplifted, by the time the end credits arrive to send moviegoers out into the night. In the case of Saving Mr. Banks, co-writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith used author Pamela (P.L.) Travers’ (Emma Thompson) troubled, conflicted relationship with her ne’er do well, alcoholic father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), to give P.L. Travers and by extension, the film, the necessary character/story arc with a relatable thematic core (i.e., reconciliation with the past, specifically P.L. Travers with her father).
Marcel and Smith juxtapose P.L. Travers’ journey into her past (via occasionally awkward flashbacks) to reconcile herself with her father with Disney’s persistent efforts – as in two decades worth – to secure the rights to Travers’ most prized possession: Mary Poppins, the magic-powered nanny who enters the lives of the Banks family, changing them irrevocably in the process. She sees them as family. Disney sees them as the next great family film that will replenish the studio’s coffers and, as always, enhance the Disney brand. Disney repeatedly claims he’s pursued the film rights relentlessly because he promised his daughters long ago he would turn Mary Poppins into a film and he won’t break a promise to his daughters. He’s also a relentless, tireless businessman/salesman, going on a charm offensive as soon as Travers’ plane touches down in L.A. Travers initially resists, setting up a familiar conflict between Old World restraint (hers) and New World excess (his), questioning and challenging Disney every opportunity, often, it should be added to comically acerbic effect.
Disney gives Travers a garrulous driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), to ferry her from her hotel to the studio where beginning on Day 1, she tears apart the script in the presence of the screenwriter, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the songwriters, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman), assigned to turn Mary Poppins into a musical. Travers’ complaints range from the seemingly inconsequential, like the façade of the Banks’ home (too rich-looking in early sketches), particular songs, or specific lines in songs. She saves her biggest objections for the casting of Dick Van Dyke and the animated dancing penguins she sees as an affront to her artistic integrity. While Disney wins the battle over casting, he’s not above (or below, to be more accurate) lying to Travers about the penguins until she signs over the rights (at which point she won’t be able to do anything). With every halting step in the creative process, Travers’ memories of her impoverished childhood in Queensland, Australia with her father and family, including the direct inspiration for Poppins, her aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths).
As Saving Mr. Banks moves toward the inevitable denouement, the flashbacks intensify, repeatedly revisiting her father-as-misguided-dreamer plot device (perpetually undermined by alcohol, of course), including an all-around embarrassing scene at the county fairground before inevitably turning on the pathos – not to mention the tear ducts – when her father’s predicament takes a pathos-filled turn for the worse. Through no fault of a talented cast, including Annie Rose Buckley as a precocious preteen P.L, the flashbacks become heavy-handed and melodramatic, unsurprising given director John Lee Hancock’s (The Blind Side, The Alamo, The Rookie) unironic proclivity for slipping overt, unsubtle sentimentality into Saving Mr. Banks at every opportunity to obtain audience sympathy. A more restrained approach (and maybe fewer momentum-sapping flashbacks) might have helped, but that’s just a minor issue in comparison to Saving Mr. Banks‘ central problem: revising history in service of unearned catharsis and closure.
After Disney makes the big pitch and Travers sells the rights, Saving Mr. Banks jumps ahead to an epilogue centered on the premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964. A chilly truce between Disney and Travers falls away when Travers breaks down in tears during the premiere. It’s meant to underline Disney’s triumph more than Travers. After all, not only did he get the rights, make Mary Poppins a musical, cast Dick Van Dyke, he also included the animated penguins Travers detested. The “real” Travers felt betrayed by Disney’s actions at the time and did little to hide her unhappiness or disgust. Saving Mr. Banks couldn’t give us that non-feel-good ending, of course. If it did, it’d tarnish Disney’s image and with it, the Disney brand. Given how key Disney the sanctified CEO is to Disney the brand, depicting Travers’ actual response to the adaptation of her novel was never going to happen, certainly not in a film made by the Disney studio. Better to sell a false, if comforting, story, than the real, far less comforting, one.