In my movie geek fantasies, I get the chance to curate a series of double features at some august movie house, or least for whoever I can convince to come spend five hours or more in my apartment. It’s too the point that whenever I see a new film or see an old one for the first time, I immediately afterwards try to find its perfect companion — a film that either reflects a similar sentiment or is directly connected to it in some way. As I was chewing on the lukewarm but reasonably well-intentioned Saving Mr. Banks, the only film that seemed to fit was decidedly not the adaptation of Mary Poppins being created within the framework of this new Disney drama. Instead, I chose Michael Moore’s 1998 anti-corporate sermon The Big One.
The two films are actually two sides of an ongoing debate in our recession-ravaged world. On one, you have Moore scraping the non-fictional shit of large companies off of his shoes, revealing unsavory practices and decisions meant to keep profits rolling in. And on the flip is a movie that practically begs you view a monolith like Disney as purveyors of all things good, the kind of benevolent overlord that will keep the personal demons of the world at bay and bring untold joy in the hearts of countless children.
That’s at least the message that the fictional Walt Disney (a decent facsimile performed by Tom Hanks) wants to leave Mrs. P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) with by the movie’s end. In his view, her signing over the rights to her literary creation — something he has been chasing as a promise to his daughters for two decades — is a way for her to finally forgive herself for her rather tragic childhood.
Mr. Banks gives viewers an unblinking glimpse into Mrs. Travers’s past, returning again and again to the Australian outback where she was raised by a long-suffering mom and a playful, head in the clouds/alcoholic dad. And when it is not showing us every worried crease in the forehead of Mrs. Travers in child form, it swings us back to Walt Disney Studios in the early ’60s where the grown-up author is tut-tutting and tsk-tsking over every decision made by screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard & Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzmann and B.J. Novak, respectively). The scenes with everyone fussing over melodies, dialog, and the placement of mustaches are the most entertaining pieces of the film. Yet, they are constantly undercut by Mrs. Travers’ rigid back and stiff upper lip. You know, lest we forget how the trials of her past led to the hard-nosed, humorless woman of the present.
There’s going to be plenty of award talk spread around about Thompson in the role of Mrs. Travers, but someone will have to do a better job explaining the logic behind that. Apart from a few moments of warmth, Thompson is shrill and grating almost the entire length of this picture. To the point that when those moments of graciousness and joy do arrive, it feels particularly tacked on and manipulative. Then again, this is Disney we’re talking about, a film company that has, of late, not shown itself to be a bastion of subtlety or originality. They are going to grab your heartstrings and yank as hard as possible on them until you cry “Uncle Walt.”