It's been well over a decade since I last visited the world of Mary Poppins, so the referent to Saving Mr. Banks was lost on me. I remember the one-man band, Mary flying in on her parasol, the delightful fusion of animation and live action, but aside from Mary and Bert everyone else faded to the back of my mind. So why, in a film focused on tumultuous relationship between Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), is the title fixed on the man who barely bliped in my memory and scarcely has two minutes of time in the film?
Because he's that unattainable ideal that Pamela couldn't recreate through her words and Walt strove toward through his visuals. He's the idea that, no matter how badly we are treated or rough our upbringing is, we can find comfort and redemption in art. This idea comes in a film that arrived at the tail end of a very strong year for cinema in general, and an unusually superb resurgence of creative energy and on-point commentary from Disney. For better or worse, and I will always fall on the side of better, Pamela and Walt were two people who created worlds that people could escape to. What isn't always apparent, and here is where Saving Mr. Banks makes that tiny but astronomical hop from superb to brilliant, my redemptive heaven is not yours, and even if we use the same language to describe it, we won't end up in the same world together.
What's so beautiful about Saving Mr. Banks is, despite this gulf that language creates, there will be people who keep trying to bring us to those points of connection that exist beyond language. This isn't a film about the warts in Disneyland or the personal problems of Walt and Pamela. They existed, and what bits of unpleasantness appear on the periphery of the scenes underscore just how damned important it was to the both of them that they create these fantastic illusions about themselves and others. Whatever it is - Disneyland, Heaven, Nirvana, Slaughterhouse-Five, ...Endtroducing - these are worlds formed to help suffering people cope with their pain and make sense of the unreal.
Saving Mr. Banks makes no overt claims about its philosophy and is structured quite simply. Pamela has fought off offers from Walt to make her books into movies, but financial necessity has now made it impossible to ignore. So she agrees to let them adapt Mary Poppins, but only if she has final say and is present for all the creative meetings. This leads to months of work from a long-suffering creative team and optimistic Walt as they try to get the proper Pamela help visualize her world, something that she may never have wanted to translate for others.
This simple scenario could have been used to throw on a few pleasing scenes, replicate some of the big numbers from Mary Poppins, and hit the credits. But this focus on the creative aspect, particularly the struggle between translating word to image, ends up giving the film a philosophical edge it might not have had otherwise. Saving Mr. Banks is all about the difficulty of communicating any emotion, be it joy or pain, by focusing entirely on the process of adaptation. So we end up with a film - that is itself an adaptation of a book about the adaptation of a film from a book - which arrives on the screen in a stunning array of conversations about what is a "real word", how certain colors trigger unpleasant memories and Pamela doesn't want them associated with something she created, and how interpretation of basic words can cause an unwanted reexamination of the most important people in our lives.
The most powerful example of this is the scene when Pamela sees the sketches that the creative team has made of Mr. Banks. Just going by her words she sees what they've made of the man - a portly, unhappy fellow who is unnecessarily mean to people. But she was remembering her father (Colin Farrell), a troubled and sick man who tried to fill her life with delight and she is brought to angry tears by their presentation. In this simple way Saving Mr. Banks shows how this feels like a violation, how someone could take something that seemed so delightful and specific and get to the raw, ugly, pain underneath. Saving Mr. Banks doesn't stop there, and has more scenes with the difficult in translating image to word, word to image, definitions to each other, and generally blasts the idea that any happiness or sadness we get through art is the terrible truth that someone may understand how you feel better than you do, and can get there by complete accident.
Theoretically, there's a lot to love about this structure, but the casting decisions and the way director John Lee Hancock uses the history of his performers heightens the nerve that this fictional worlds, these hyperrealities, can touch. Emma Thompson is framed many times staring directly into the camera and speaks her mind quite a bit. This isn't as a soliloquy in Saving Mr. Banks, but unconsciously recalls the many times she has worked with Shakespeare or her brilliant performance as the dying professor in Wit, and plants the idea that she is also communicating her pain even when she is just talking about how a character should or should not seem. Also consider Tom Hanks' performance as Walt Disney which at first confused me with his light emphasis on Disney's time in Memphis through a southern accent. But then Hancock pulls back with the camera, lets us see the delight that Hanks is barely holding back with his body, and it recalls when Hanks was a young man dancing on a keyboard in Big.
Every performance, and Hancock's framing, is a deliberate emphasis on the realities these performers make for us. Hanks is not going for an accurate Walt Disney but instead the giddy idea of Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, it's not a "real" portrayal because the "real" doesn't matter - it's the emotion and influence of his deliberately unrealistic performance. Paul Giamatti comes right out and says it in a handful of heartbreaking lines as he says that the illusion of being happily obsessed with the weather is not because he's putting on a façade for his customers, but because his daughter is in a wheelchair and he needs to be the thing that gets her out of bed and around the home. This is an inspiring lie. Then we have the many scenes of the creative staff singing out of tune and with half-formed words, knowing that whatever they make will be for someone else for a world that doesn't exist - all because they want to tell another lie that will make everything ok.
It's easy to be critical of this idea or dismiss it outright when it's blown up to the size of Disneyland - a place where the opiate of "magic" keeps people complacent. But I've never cottoned to this idea. It deliberately ignores the daily lies and illusions we need to put on and tell our loved ones that it's all going to be fine. We lie because we have to and when someone has the energy and drive to make a lie big enough for all of us to believe that's not an opiate, that's real magic. Saving Mr. Banks is a precise, wonderful lie - one that has the courage to admit how hard it is to make and live in that world as the rest of us toil through this one.
Directed by John Lee Hancock.
Screenplay written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith.
Starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.