Whereas some businessmen rule their companies with an iron fist, relying on tough love and strategy from Sun Tzu’s Art of War or Machiavelli’s The Prince to get the results they’re after, Mickey Mouse creator Walt Disney preferred to use the golden rule as his modus operandi.
Putting everyone on equal footing by insisting on first names as opposed to formalities and assuring the people he hoped to collaborate with that they could trust him, the last thing Walt Disney wanted to do is break a promise or go back on his word… especially when he’d made a promise to a child.
Not fond of playing games or pulling rank, Disney’s version of tough love was to take an even more hands-on approach than before, taking the meeting out of Walt Disney studios and trying to make his guest more comfortable by taking the day off to ride a merry-go-round at Disneyland while offering up the seat of his wife’s favorite mechanical horse.
And as depicted in Saving Mr. Banks, that is exactly the tactic Disney (Tom Hanks) had to take with the famously temperamental Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) whom he’d annually courted for twenty years to acquire the rights to her book after promising his young daughters that he would adapt her work for the big screen.
Having remained steadfast in her refusals for two decades, it’s only after the now economically desperate Travers is threatened with the loss of her home that she reluctantly travels to Los Angeles (the land that in her mind smells of chlorine and sweat) to review the progress made by screenwriter Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the film’s composers, the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman).
Having been granted the studio’s first official agreement of script approval, Travers sets out to make the most of that opportunity to hold as tightly to the reigns of the work that means so much to her before signing over the rights for good.
Demanding that every work session be recorded and immediately choosing to veto every possible idea from the casting of Dick Van Dyke to the inclusion of animation or at her most ridiculously temperamental – the color red – the Disney staffers are pushed into a creative battle that in all actuality wound up pushing the men in the room to produce some of the finest work of their entire career.
While the masterful final result is well known to viewers, it’s fascinating to see the creative process at work, particularly with regard to the Sherman brothers who toy with the meanings of words to provide a thrilling musical counterpoint to Travers's imaginative world.
Yet through a series of extended flashbacks from the point of view of the complicated Travers, we soon discover that what the studio believes is merely a delightful children’s book is in fact a largely autobiographical work of creative wish fulfillment and regret about her difficult childhood.
Filled with a stellar ensemble cast including a wickedly witty yet undeniably moving turn by Thompson and great supporting work from Tom Hanks and scene-stealers Colin Farrell and Paul Giamatti as Travers’ father and the Los Angeles driver with whom she forms an unexpected bond, Saving Mr. Banks is a remarkable achievement.
Though screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith walk an unenviable tightrope throughout by going back and forth in time and telling two completely different yet interrelated stories, the film from The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock doesn’t make a misstep.
Part biopic and part behind-the-scenes celebration of the intersection between fact and fiction and how writing what you know can take a completely unexpected form, while Disney buffs who’ve watched behind-the-scenes Poppins features and/or the wonderful Sherman Brothers documentary had assuredly heard tales of the war waged on Disney by Travers before, this sensitively made work offers a much richer understanding of the situation.
Illustrating the importance of believing in yourself coupled with artistic catharsis, Banks is a wonderful tribute to the man who told us to wish on stars, the brothers who praised the benefits of a spoonful of sugar through the power of song and the woman who set out to save a family but in doing so, inspired us to save each other. Now that’s the way we should all set out to do business… merry-go-rounds optional.
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