Historian at the Movies: Saving Mr. Banks reviewed

As part of our new series, Dr John Wills, a senior lecturer in American history at the University of Kent, reviews Saving Mr. Banks – a biographical drama about PL Travers, the Australian creator of children's literary classic Mary Poppins

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Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks - credit Kobal Collection

Q: Did you enjoy the film?

A: I found Saving Mr. Banks a pleasure to watch. The movie tells the story of author PL Travers’ visit to Disney studios in 1961, following 20 years of negotiation to gain rights to her novel Mary Poppins.

A film about Disney, rather than just from Disney, is at the very least a celluloid novelty. It is akin to a ‘making of’ or ‘behind the scenes’ documentary, transformed into a mildly indulgent – but fun – motion picture.

It is a small-scale and intimate work, and as such displays a maturity, subtlety and emotional pitch often uncommon in Disney movies. It is quite charming, in a ‘spoonful of sugar’ kind of way. The last ‘American history’ film I watched was Lincoln, and that proved far more irritating.

Saving Mr. Banks features a superbly subtle performance by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, although I found Emma Thompson intolerable as Travers (although it is likely an accurate impersonation).

Colin Farrell’s hair, as well as ever-changing accent, proved entertaining. The flashbacks to Travers’ childhood experiences in Australia are initially confusing and awkward, but gradually the two periods (1906 and 1961) entwine well.

There are some wonderful lines – for example, when Walt Disney promises to "eat [Travis] up". In a virtual sea of CGI falsity, it is also a relief to watch a real and emotionally touching movie!

Q: Was the film historically accurate?

A: Historical accuracy and Disney rarely mix. Disney studios have retold, as well as reinvented, many European and American stories, with some mixed results. A Disney-style ‘American history’ theme park in Virginia was even cancelled in 1994 due to protests.

However, due to Saving Mr. Banks being a story about Disney, some degree of authenticity is a given. We get to see the troubled relationship between author and studio.

The film is lavish in its attention to detail, from the variety of props on show to the movie script itself (in fact, the original recordings of Travers speaking at the studio in 1961 are featured during the movie credits – a decidedly nice touch).

However, there are problems. It is doubtful that the personal dynamics between Travers and Walt proved so amiable in real life. And the movie presents Disney studios as a cosy and old-fashioned place, occupied by six staff: the reality was anything but that.

Disney was a huge enterprise pushing, the boundaries of technological innovation. It was a design factory, and a cultural behemoth.

Q: What, in your mind, did the film get right?

A: The Disney message. How could it not? The movie captures the magic of Walt Disney, the healing power of song, animation and imagination. It shows us not history, but Disney’s historic vision.

Travers’ criticisms of the “Disney way”, his “silly cartoons”, and his simplification of the literary world also resonate. Novelist Julian Halevy derided Disneyland in 1955 as "a sickening blend of cheap formulas packaged to sell." Travers, likewise, seems suitably appalled.

I also liked how Hanks plays Walt Disney, capturing the mannerisms and persuasiveness of the man himself. Hanks’ performance here almost makes up for his horrific romp through American history in Forrest Gump (1994).

And the attention to detail in Saving Mr. Banks is truly impressive. From period cars to storyboards, the movie excels. I loved the doctored picture of Hanks as Walt Disney riding his miniature train.

Q: What did it miss?

A: There was a notable lack of critical reflection.

Predictable, given that the movie is by Disney, Walt comes across as a lovely, caring and patient figure. In reality, he was far more complicated, flawed and demanding. His relationship with some staff was troubled. He also chain-smoked. 

On a broader level, the movie captures a romanticised aesthetic of two periods, rather than probe what life was actually like. The sense of Australia (Travers is Australian) is skeletal at best - the presence of a kangaroo a too obvious visual signifier - and 1960s America similarly basic in tone.

Ultimately, there is an unsurprising process of ‘Disneyfication’ at work. Everything is bright, clean, and fake. London is decidedly twee, full of cherry blossom, and a ‘green and pleasant’ land.

The real world outside Disneyland is depicted as not that much different from the contrived, Technicolor adventure within.

Watch the trailer for Saving Mr. Banks here. To read more about the film, click here.