When I went to see Saving Mr. Banks on New Years Day, I didn’t know what to expect. Oh, I knew what the movie was about. But I didn’t know if I’d enjoy it. For one thing, the Internet Preemptive Movie Outrage Machine had been making angry noises about this film for months, even before it had finished principal photography. And since the Disney corporation routinely treats its founder like just another licensed character (one wonders if the vacuous social media drones who run the Disney Parks Blog even know that Walt Disney was a real person) the idea that the film would depict Walt as a saintly, one-dimensional figure was a very real concern.
Now, a lot of people have excoriated this movie because it pays fast and loose with the facts, especially as they relate to P.L. Travers. But didn’t we know that was going to happen? Haven’t we realized by now that “based on a true story” is Hollywood-speak for “95% dramatic embellishment”? Even if you didn’t know anything about P.L. Travers before seeing this movie, you can probably guess that the viewing of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins neither magically resolved her daddy issues (and that those daddy issues were the invention of a Hollywood screenwriter) nor restored her creative mojo. And if you were surprised that a movie distributed by the Disney corporation chose to softpedal the real P.L. Travers’ dislike for their Mary Poppins film, then I imagine you’re also shocked when a Michael Bay movie contains explosions.
For me the real surprise of this movie was its treatment of Walt Disney. A lot of people worried that Tom Hanks would just play him like, well, a mustachioed Tom Hanks. They really should have given the guy more credit. After all, actors who only play a thinly-disguised version of themselves don’t win multiple Best Actor Oscars. But the fact that Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks gives a good performance is not what’s surprising here. It’s that Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t give us the whitewashed portrayal of Walt Disney that many people feared. He’s a genial presence, sure, but he can also be a bit manipulative and even devious. I was genuinely surprised that a company as pathologically dishonest about almost everything relating to itself as Disney is would allow its founder to be portrayed that three-dimensionally.
Also, I loved the movie’s depiction of the Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland in the early 1960s. I don’t have any facts to back this up, but I believe that current CEO Bob Iger would like people to draw parallels between Walt and himself because both men acquired other people’s intellectual property for use by the Disney company. But for me, Saving Mr. Banks was a reminder of why the Walt Disney Company’s golden age has come and gone: the company has gotten too big, and there is no Walt. During Disney’s 1960s heyday, the company was small enough that it was possible for everything it did to reflect the creative vision of one person. Today’s Walt Disney Company is just too large for any one person to be intimately involved in everything it does. And even if that wasn’t the case, people like Walt come along only once in a generation. This generation’s Walt Disney, whoever he or she might be, is probably at the helm of their own company, not working at an ossified multinational behemoth like Disney or Microsoft.
In the end, Saving Mr. Banks reminded me that Disney became a beloved worldwide institution because of the guy it’s named after. In the absence of someone like that, any company-even one with competent management-would flounder creatively. The Walt Disney Company’s “golden age” of the 1950s and 60s was a unique time that will never come again. And even as brick-and-mortar products of that period, like Disneyland, are altered beyond recognition by clueless corporate decision-making, films like Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and The Love Bug endure unchanged, giving us a crystal-clear snapshot of a modern Renaissance as it recedes farther and farther into the past.