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“Disney” used to be a name, but for several generations of human beings spread out across our terrestrial sphere, it is more like a primal state of mind. However old you are, if you’re reading this, “Disney” probably conjures up memories for you, either because everyone was young once or because most people have kids eventually. I was born a couple decades after Walt Disney died, which meant that my parents could feed me an impossible amount of Disney-branded content: Animated features, Saturday morning cartoons, action figures, and videogames based on all of the above.
Family myth has it that the first movie I ever went to see/was taken to in the theaters was The Black Cauldron. That could be a trick of memory. But sometime in grade school, I pulled a page off my Disney Page-A-Day calendar, saw an image from The Black Cauldron, and experienced a deep and resonant feeling of buried memory. Maybe because I had happened upon The Black Cauldron on TV one day, or maybe it was playing in the background of somebody’s fourth birthday party. Maybe I just absorbed The Black Cauldron through osmosis when my parents took me to Disneyland. (I can’t ever remember watching Dumbo, but I bet a hypnotist could uncover some corner of my subconscious and make me draw it from memory.)
I’m guessing you have some kind of similar relationship to Disney: Favorite cartoons from when you were a kid, or Halloween costumes, or memories of family trips to one of Disney’s theme parks. You’ve probably debated the merits of The Lion King vs. Aladdin vs. Beauty and the Beast vs. The Little Mermaid at least once in the last decade. Even if you never experienced a single Disney-related thing in your childhood, the cultural reverberations of Disney probably affected you even in their absence. (ASIDE: I like to imagine a kid raised purely on non-Disney cartoons like The Hobbit and the Charlie Brown specials and The Last Unicorn, which all inadvertently tout their non-Disney-ness by virtue of being weird as hell. Or maybe you just grew up watching anime, in which case you’re cooler than everybody else anyway. END OF ASIDE.)
For all that, it’s rare to find a work of art or entertainment in pop culture that directly addresses Disney as a concept. That’s partially because Disney holds aggressive trademarks on every visual and spiritual aspect of their operation, and partially because Disney increasingly seems to own most of pop culture. But two very different movies released in 2013 approach the idea of Disney head-on, in very different ways. Saving Mr. Banks is an inside-the-bubble product: A film about Walt Disney™ by Disney™ about the making of Disney’s Mary Poppins™ featuring an exciting tour through Disneyland™™™. Escape From Tomorrow is a barely legal anti-product shot guerilla-style inside Disney’s theme parks.
The films couldn’t be more different. Mr. Banks is a smooth inside-Hollywood biopic made by professionals on every level: It’s one of those movies where everyone’s skin appears to have been color-corrected into a warm glow. Tomorrow is a black-and-white surrealist mess shot with a mixture of shaky cam and not-even-trying-to-hide-it greenscreen. Mr. Banks is a Christmas release that was actually considered an Oscar hopeful, which seems unlikely, since this was a good year for Oscar-bait movies that aren’t commercials for other movies. Tomorrow caused some buzz on the festival circuit but didn’t drum up much business when it actually opened in theaters a couple months ago. Mr. Banks is most clearly a movie about how Walt Disney saves an adult by helping her to fix her childhood, while Tomorrow is most clearly a movie about a horny married man fixated on possibly underage French chicks in Daisy Dukes. Mr. Banks is well-made and utterly empty. Tomorrow is frequently unwatchable and utterly fascinating.
The biggest problem with Tomorrow is that — despite the setting — it’s frustratingly non-specific. Roy Abramsohn’s harried dad gets fired in the opening scene and sets out on an odyssey that approaches magical realism but is neither magical nor particularly realistic. It’s a stew of ideas that never quite boils: There’s Oedipus, there’s capitalism, there’s the always-interesting idea that Disney’s “princess” fetish is the madonna-whore complex gone mainstream, and there’s the not-particularly-controversial argument that It’s a Small World is an annoying demon-pit of misery.
Tomorrow is transgressive in the same way that wiping human feces on a picture of Christ is transgressive: It hits you viscerally in the most adolescent way possible. Saving Mr. Banks is the absolute opposite of transgression, although you could argue that it’s the story of a seduction. Emma Thompson plays P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins and a fussy crank. Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney, the man who wants to turn Mary Poppins into a movie. The film plays out as a witty-banter war between the two of them: Disney wants to turn Poppins into a Disney product; Travers plays the role of frustrated artist and Disney atheist, upset with every new suggestion by Disney and his team.
The film strives hard to link Travers’ frustration with her childhood in Sydney, which is problematic not in the least because her childhood in Sydney plays out like an afterschool special about why booze is bad. (As her big-dreaming loser dad, Colin Farrell is wasted in every sense.) Far more interesting are the scenes set inside the Disney studio, as Travers wrestles with the screenwriter, songwriters, and Disney himself over the direction of the movie.
The scenes work as film because the music is great, albeit recycled. They also work because, in a bright and peppy way, it feels like you’re seeing some deeper truth about the Disney creative process. Travers doesn’t want the characters to sing or frolic with cartoon penguins; they sing and frolic with cartoon penguins. Travers doesn’t want Dick Van Dyke to deface the movie with a funny accent; Van Dyke’s accent is there onscreen, funny and terrible. At one point, Disney tells Travers: “I won’t disappoint you. I swear every time a person walks into a movie house they will rejoice.” It’s meant to play onscreen as a Big Moment: Disney telling Travers he cares about her work. But it’s really a demonstration of Hollywood at its most huckstery: Disney telling Travers that he’ll take her work and turn it into something that will be much more popular.
This could have been a fascinating exploration of art vs. capitalism. But because the movie is simple, uncomplicated, and generally pretty stupid, it becomes a demonstration of how Disney got some old English broad to just chill out already, yeesh. Most of the great Disney films take dark fairy tales and give them happy endings, while pruning out anything that could be objectionable to anyone. (The films that turned out accidentally objectionable — whoops, turns out Song of the South is racist! — get deleted from history.)
The best thing about Saving Mr. Banks is that the movie demonstrates this accidentally. Although the film deserves some credit for not skimping on Travers’ rough childhood, it basically ignores everything about Travers’ adulthood — you know, “adulthood,” the vast majority of human existence. It ignores her adopted son, except with a throwaway line that feels specifically designed to avoid any lawsuits. Travers was bisexual, which of course isn’t explored at all: I guess you could argue it’s “open for interpretation,” although you could also point out that Mr. Banks‘s climactic sequence features Disney curing Travers’ deep-seated psychological issues using the time-honored process of mansplaining. The film seems to argue that Travers winds up loving Mary Poppins, a notion which doesn’t seem to have any basis in anything you could define as fact.
The film also adds in a wholly fictional character, played by Paul Giamatti. He’s a chauffeur, and he’s always smiling, and he gets a long speech where he talks about how his saintly handicapped daughter loves movie films or something. Giamatti is Giamatti, so when he gives that speech, your heart hurts a little. (“You can’t worry about the future. Only today.”) But then you think back on it and your head hurts.
But maybe it’s better if you don’t think about it. In a weird way, Saving Mr. Banks is a companion piece to Adaptation: Like the Jonze/Kaufman meta-romp, Mr. Banks begins with a character swearing not to give into popular pablum, and by the end that character and the movie around her has given in to popular pablum. This, more than anything, comes close to defining something about the Disney Myth. The movie puts up lots of arguments against the company’s sanitizing influence, and then counters with a simple argument: “But doesn’t everyone like it more this way?”
Disney’s key demographic will always be children, which is another way of saying their key demographic is uneducated human beings. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Disney’s key demographic is children, and their purpose is education. Saving Mr. Banks argues that you will be much happier when you accept Disney into your heart; Escape from Tomorrow argues that there isn’t really another option.