Can Saving Mr. Banks, Disney's latest, be anything other than propaganda for the company it portrays?
Of all the old Hollywood studios, Disney is the one that retains the most of its original creative DNA. That’s not saying much: the Columbia, Paramount, et al. of today are acquired divisions of larger corporations bearing little relation to their origins. At least Walt Disney’s signature is still often part of the company logo for family fare. Still, in the post-Pirates of the Caribbean blockbuster era of the studio, the man's legacy is appears most undiluted on the ground at Disney World/-land.
And so we have Saving Mr. Banks, a creepy little movie pushing the “old Disney” brand while pretending to merely celebrate the difficult creative circumstances that birthed 1964’s Mary Poppins. Like many “family movies,” Poppins derives its primary emotional impact by playing on kids’ fears that their parents don’t love them—indeed, that their rowdy behavior may lead directly to divorce and the dissolution of the family unit. Banks is disturbing in an entirely different way: it Disneyfies the founder of the studio portraying him.
The dialogue for this cleaned-up Disney is like something you might write if you hate the company he built. “I love Mary Poppins,” Tom Hanks tells Emma Thompson’s Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers, “And you, you have got to share her with me.”
Creepy, but the movie bears out the judiciousness of his claim that Disney’s culturally entitled to anything he can pay for: the only reason Travers won’t give up her rights and let the children be happy is because of a daddy fixation. Walt plays amateur shrink with regards to her father issues and assures her he’s not just seeking out “just another brick in the Magic Kingdom,” but the movie you’re watching is all about monetizing a part of the Disney brand that’s not currently being maximally exploited, an internal contradiction that's impossible to ignore.
The company’s sometimes documented itself in quasi-systematic fashion, bringing in Leonard Maltin to act as an officially approved, not-quite-in-house historian for a book-length history of the studio and intros to various DVDs, and the minimal-fiscal-returns 1995 documentary Frank and Ollie celebrated two of the legendary “Nine Old Men” animators. But this isn’t a celebration of what’s been but a hardcore push for an underutilized segment of the brand as is. We see P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) alone, hugging a Mickey doll when no one can see her; she’s cleaned her hotel room of a welcoming bouquet of plush animals earlier, but the inarguable (?) truth is that no one’s immune to the mouse.
The dialogue for this cleaned-up Walt Disney is like something you might write if you hate the company he built.
Disney policy says you can’t smoke on-screen, so you see Tom Hanks stubbing out a butt off-screen, apologizing, “I never let anyone see me smoking. I hate to encourage bad habits.” For a corrective, check out storyboard man Bill Peet’s autobiography, with many, many sketches of Disney in various states of chain-smoking irateness. Peet says you could always tell if he was coming down the hall by his smoker’s cough (something Hanks faithfully replicates; he’s heard before he’s seen), but the company he established can’t handle his bad habits and death from lung cancer. Disney himself was a marginally competent draftsman, an organizational genius, and someone who managed to make an obscenely perky rodent, an emotionally incontinent duck, et al., the basis for millions in licensing revenue. Prone to alternating bathos and irritability, he was a complicated, thorny man who played a benevolent guru on TV.
Earlier this year, the absolutely dreadful Escape From Tomorrow was supposed to launch a scathing attack at the Mouse House by covertly filming a “subversive narrative” (about a family man literally losing his mind at Disneyland) within the base of the power infrastructure itself. The trouble was that no one would’ve watched that film if it wasn’t based in the Disney empire: it only garnered interest because of the name brand it was attacking. The impulse to deride Disney is understandable. The company’s worked tirelessly and shamelessly to imply that it’s no mere entertainment conglomerate but something greater than the sum of its corporate parts: a magical rite of passage for every American childhood, rather than, say, a rapacious merchandiser with a severely litigious streak. In fact Disney’s both, a monolith in American cultural life to be reckoned with; simple pro/con positions don’t cut it.
There’s great artistic history in there to reckon with, a fact that’s obscured both by this kind of bland hagiography and angry anti-corporate attacks: Snow White and subsequent classics, lovely as they can be, pale next to the irrational weirdness and uncontrolled imaginativeness of the “Silly Symphonies” and character-based early shorts that built the company up and have now been relegated to the for-deep-dish-buffs-only dustbin. A shame: there’s room for something between a corporate self-promotional film and an incoherent attack.
Vadim Rizov is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He tweets at @vrizov.