Walt Disney has become a brand-name invoking a world of perpetual enchantment and demonstrations of friendliness so over the top they can confine to a tyranny of smiles. That's a very cynical way to look at it but not too far-fetched. Still, as a father of a little girl and given how enamored she was with "Frozen" and how she seems to enjoy the old cartoons I show her on Youtube, I can't deny that Disney (the man or the company) always had a way with children and pardon the cliché, the inner child in all of us.
So it's quite fun to see the Walt Disney company producing a movie where all the archetypes of Disney would be disdained by a stuck-up British lady who's no one else but the writer of "Mary Poppins", P.L. Travers played by a delightful Emma Thompson. It's also fun to see the one receiving these critics being good old Disney himself, played by Tom Hanks. He doesn't try to imitate Disney but "Saving Mr. Banks" isn't intended to be a formal biopic about how the tycoon got the rights for what would become one of his most successful and iconic works.
The film plays on a more emotional level, it is about two visions, two convictions that should have made Mickey Mouse and Mary Poppins walk hand-in-hand to contribute to a masterpiece (the poster is a perfect summary of the film on that level)... only it took twenty years. It was a promise made to his daughters that Walt Disney couldn't allow himself to break, make a film out Travers' classic "Mary Poppins", but the woman, a stubborn Aussie, wouldn't have the glitter and the schmaltzy bliss of Disney tarnish the legacy of her book. She had a misconception, taking Disney for some modern-day Santa Claus but so did Disney by misunderstanding the woman and ignoring the sources of her inspiration, some tragic ones.
The film offers many flashbacks of Travers' childhood during which we witness the fallout of her family, from the descent into sickness and alcoholism of her father, to the attempted suicide of her mother and a nurse that took care of her family when she was seven. Just like John Lee Hancock's previous film "The Blind Side", the film seems very simple and straightforward until, you start to grasp a specific subtext. In "The Blind Side", there's a moment where we clearly question the motivations of the Tuohy Family, if it wasn't just about football, and then this question is answered. In "Mr Banks", we know Travers doesn't want any animation, any red color, but we quickly realize there's something else eating her.
She wants Mr. Banks shaven, to be a good man, she has an obsession with Mr. Banks even more than the children or maybe Mary Poppins, the flashbacks centering on her well-meaning but unlucky father played by Colin Farrell allows us to reassemble the pieces of the puzzle and understand what the purpose of Mary Poppins was. There's a pattern in the film consisting on all the friendliest moments (and Travers is quite devoid of immediate warmth) involves a father or one invoking father's memories. Nothing Oedipal about it, it's just speaks about people who accomplished major works by translating the burden of their childhood into something positive.
Of course, Disney's body of work is superior but there's no denial that Travers contributed to his most iconic creation, his first Best Picture nomination and a classic for all ages. We know "Mary Poppins" will be made anyway, and the efforts of the Sherman brothers or Disney executive will pay off, but the film is enjoyable on the simple level of these interactions and the so conflicting mentalities of Disney, a cheerful man but astute businessman and a woman who's taking her book very personally. It's only after she realizes how personal it is to Disney that she finally trusts him... and the rest is history.