Everyone’s favorite star has become the corporate face of Disney
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: [l to r] Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson seek common ground in “Saving Mr. Banks”; Rating: PG-13 Grade: B
Poor PL Travers (Emma Thompson), she was such a cold woman. Full of that stiff upper lip game-facing that we’ve come to expect from the British (although Travers is actually Australian, but who cares for such distinctions, right?), she was all principle and reserve. At the start of John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” it is not clear immediately how long the author of “Mary Poppins” has been locked in a very private war of attrition, facing off against the one and only Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), backed by all of the money he has amassed, thanks to his cute and cuddly animated shock-troopers. We quickly learn, though, she has held him off for almost 20 years because Travers has no time for impossibly cute fairies and hummable tunes with nonsensical made-up words that insinuate themselves into the brain.
The thing is, it’s hard to disagree with Travers. Maybe I’m a bit of a Scrooge, especially around the holidays, but why should human stories be softened and dumbed-down for children? What a relevant discussion for a modern world that cushions everyone’s sensibilities, not just children’s, to the point that we, as a nation, find ourselves unable to cope with the global realities of our falling status as a world power? We can’t keep up in terms of education or economics. We can’t think critically or act responsibly when faced with trials and tribulations. We want stories we can understand, a simpler world we can relate to, that looks like us, speaks the same language and, thus, confirms us.
That is what Disney has always given us, for better and worse. It could be argued Walt has the best of intentions, but he’s paving a hellishly pristine road that remains intact today with few, if any, potholes. He and his team don’t know or care what the story of “Mary Poppins” means to Travers. He just wants to take it and remake it in his (corporate) image.
In the hands of a lesser performer though, audiences might rebel, just as Travers has done, even when confronted by diminishing returns from her works that could rob her of the home she’s built for herself. She’s a proud woman, and Thompson holds tightly to every ounce of it, but the virtue of it turns and twists into a hardness she wears like armor.
Hanks sees that formidable defense and counters with what amounts to a nonviolent approach. He refuses to fight. He offers love and a willingness to carry the burden for her. Because of his presence, this doesn’t feel like a strategic maneuver. Hanks’s Disney wants to be a savior, believing he truly knows best. And why wouldn’t he? The whole world knows and trusts him. He’s a Christ-like figure without a devil to tempt him or challenge his rule.
In essence, Travers becomes the antagonist in her own story. That’s what happens when you face off against such a beloved presence. But the larger lesson here is Disney’s template isn’t all its cracked up to be. The path of least resistance doesn’t keep us sharp or prepare us for what is to come. Disney knew that once. He shares memories of growing up under a father who demanded more from Walt and his older brother Roy. In this moment, Disney and Travers bond – nothing like memories of dear old hard-assed dads to bring people together. Hanks sells this story, but it’s an empty deal. We just don’t realize it yet.
Even now, in the midst of the (de)evolution of critical thinking Disney has wrought, I find it hard to blame Hanks for this performance. He merely shows us how seductive Walt Disney – and the big corporate mindset – could be.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.