Saving Mr. Banks and building
Mr. Brand: the Walt Disney
Company in the era of
corporate personhood

by Mike Budd

Starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson and released by the Walt Disney Company to theaters around the world in late 2013 and early 2014, Saving Mr. Banks cost around $35 million and by April 2014 had earned more than $112 million in theatrical rentals worldwide.[1][open endnotes in new window] Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) from a script by Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey, 2015) and Sue Smith, the film presents the Disney version of the making of one of Disney’s most successful and cherished films, Mary Poppins (1964), starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
In March 1961, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the English (originally Australian) author of the Mary Poppins stories on which the Disney film will be loosely based, comes to Los Angeles to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), the scriptwriter, Don Da Gradi, and the songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. She needs money, since her books are no longer selling and she isn’t writing more, but she hates the idea that her books will be trivialized, “turned into one of his silly little cartoons.” Stubbornly and unreasonably objecting to every creative interpretation, large and small, by the Disney team, Travers finally returns to London two weeks later, having refused to sign over the rights.

However, the difficult negotiations have dredged up the sources of her Mary Poppins stories in memories of her childhood traumas in early twentieth century rural Australia. Much of Saving Mr. Banks focuses on Travers’ humble childhood as Helen Goff, daughter of a romantic, alcoholic father (and partial model for Mr. Banks in her stories and the film) and suicidal mother. In addition, Travers has been moved by talking with her chauffeur in Los Angeles, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), whose daughter is in a wheelchair. Walt Disney follows Pamela Travers back to London, where he persuades her to trust him with her precious creation, and she finally signs over the rights. The film ends with the world premiere of Mary Poppins some three years later, where Travers weeps cathartically, Disney having kept his promise to save in imagination her father, Mr. Banks.

In many ways Saving Mr. Banks is a predictably ordinary commercial film, constructed according to the conventional narrative practices of most Hollywood films and made by a company that is known for its conservative business practices, family-friendly products, social conformity and merchandising tie-ins. Indeed, in characteristic Disney fashion, the film’s theatrical release was carefully timed to coincide with the wide release of the 50th Anniversary Edition of the DVD/Blu-Ray of Mary Poppins and various other cross-promotional events at Disney theme parks and elsewhere so that the two films, new and old, could not only sell themselves but also constitute powerful advertisements for one another and many ancillary Disney products as well.[2]

However, Saving Mr. Banks is revealing not only for its familiar elements but for its unusual ones: it is a Disney film about the making of a Disney film, and stars Tom Hanks, perhaps the most trusted star in the U.S., as the eponymous founder of the company. The Walt Disney Company is, on the one hand, a global media and entertainment conglomerate, #61 on the 2014 Fortune 500 list, with revenues of $45 billion and profits of $6.1 billion.[3] On the other hand, the company is named after one man. Few if any multinational corporations have such a defining relation with their founder, and few have made it such a priority to create and cultivate a public image of that person for so long. Nicholas Sammond has argued, in fact, that beyond Mickey and Donald and all of the hundreds of other characters the Disney company has produced, the image and public persona of Walt Disney himself has been the corporation’s most important product, the story of this self-made man “the company’s most enduring tale.”[4]

A mission statement

A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times that

“it would be unfair to dismiss this picture…as an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It’s more of a mission statement.”[5]

Why a feature film as mission statement, and why now? What can we learn about Saving Mr. Banks from studying The Walt Disney Company, and vice versa? Here I argue that distinctive characteristics of the film and the company that made it are reciprocally illuminating, that the peculiar role that this film plays for Disney at this historical moment gives it a particular resonance with the current political economy and ideology of this corporation and of capitalism today.

More specifically, for the first time since Walt and his brother Roy O. Disney got into the animation business nearly a century ago, no one from the Disney family participates in running the company. Roy E. Disney, the son of Roy O. and the nephew of Walt, had been the last family member actively involved on the board of directors and in a top executive position, and he died in 2009 after helping to refocus and maintain the diversified firm’s attention on feature animation as its central financial and creative force.[6]And on a symbolic level, Saving Mr. Banks bears, during its closing credit sequence, a dedication to Walt’s only biological child, his daughter: “Dedicated to Diane Disney Miller, 1933-2013,” who had died less than a month before the film’s theatrical release.

More than a mere gesture, this dedication helps the film in its larger project of building the Disney brand, one of the most powerful and auratic in the world. The film represents Walt’s intense desire to make a film of Mary Poppins less as a smart business decision and more as the result of a promise he made to his daughters some twenty years before:

“A man can’t break a promise he’s made to his daughters…That’s what being a daddy is all about, is not breaking a promise…My motion picture is not just going to make my kids happy, it’s going to make all kids happy.”[7]

Since the film posits that it is precisely the failure of Pamela Travers’ father to keep all his romantic promises of happiness that constitutes her childhood trauma and determined adult unhappiness, Walt’s exemplary paternal behavior is set up to constitute a pointed contrast with that of her own father. (Although Travers’ relationship with her father, who died when she was a child, marked her whole life, the film makes this relationship determining and central.)[8] This fictionalized contrast in father-daughter relationships becomes central to the film’s narrative argument and the triumph of Walt Disney’s conception of Mary Poppins over that of its original author, P.L. Travers.[9] More important, it also helps shore up a significant piece of the larger corporate myth of Walt Disney as a man whose business success was based less in calculation and persistence, let alone the hard work of his employees, than in his simple and innocent desire to extend to children everywhere the pleasures of storytelling and fantasy that he shared with his own children. Walt Disney’s persona represents a huge, impersonal, multinational corporation that depends on public perceptions and has built its reputation for quality in significant part on the guarantee that its globally-recognized brand signifies that parents everywhere can trust their children with its products. So the legitimation of a personal, parent-child relationship between its founder and his children as the imaginary core and inspiration for all the company produces is something you can take to the bank.[10]

Disney’s histories of Disney:
a man and his corporation

At this moment, when the family ties to the ultimate family corporation are broken, there’s value in a brand builder and mission statement like Saving Mr. Banks. The film along with the other films discussed below symbolically reconnects the diversified global Disney empire, now projecting its private power into multiple public domains, to its originating father and patriarchal family as the source of its supposedly universal appeal. In a sense, the film is a culmination of a series of smaller films, three documentaries and a cartoon, distributed recently by the studio, which present the Disney version of its own corporate history: The Pixar Story (2007), Walt & El Grupo (2008), Waking Sleeping Beauty (2010), and Get a Horse! (2013). The company has always tried to control its own history by making films, television programs, books and other Disney products reflexively telling behind-the-scenes promotional stories which resemble its other stories, but these films may be seen as a small but significant new approach to this control.

In the tumultuous years from 1984 to 2005, Michael Eisner expanded and diversified the company beyond its existing product base, but he also brought Hollywood-style executive excess and spotlight-hogging public melodrama to a company built on its conservative family reputation. In addition to an egotistical inability to work with anyone who might threaten his position, he also appeared to be using his power to construct an image for himself as the sweet and avuncular new Walt Disney. His successor in 2005, Robert Iger, adopted a lower, more subdued profile seen as more appropriate to the Disney image, not attempting to appropriate the Disney family and corporation’s reputation for himself.[11] Wall Street approves of Iger’s performance, and the first of his acquisitions, Pixar in 2006, is the subject of the first of these films. Thus, whether directly approved by Iger or not, the films can be seen as reasserting the conventional wisdom of the corporation’s historical connections to its charismatic founder and to quality animation generally after a period in which usurpers attempted to appropriate the value of those connections.

The three documentaries and a cartoon short have an edgier, less conformist appeal than the usual Disney product. They reveal a still marginal dimension of the company’s culture that—under the influence of a new generation of animators and marketers, prominently including those from Pixar—attempts to keep up with social and cultural changes that threaten to leave a stodgy Disney company behind. On the other hand, these films follow and expand on the company’s distinctive and longtime practice of treating everything the studio produces as a commodity designed to be fragmented and recombined into new commodities in other media, texts and platforms.

Much of the company’s success is built on constructing cute, appealing and fungible modular units of character traits, visual narratives and songs. Organized into live-action and animated feature films, these commodified units can then be dismantled into their constituent modules, sold as toys, clothing, books, music and other merchandise as well as reassembled into other contexts as online or other media segments. They can also be adapted and projected from two into three dimensions as narrative experiences for theme parks, cruise ships, resorts and theatrical productions. In this case, the spectator now walks or rides through a Disney fantasy world instead of sitting in front of a screen.[12]Examples include the reappearance of elements of Disney movies and television shows in rides (“Dumbo the Flying Elephant”) and attractions (Cinderella Castle, Disney characters) at the Disney theme parks, and reciprocally of promotion of Disney theme parks and films through recontextualized segments on Disney anthology television shows from Disneyland in 1954 to the present. And the Disney Channel is a kind of totalizing experience, with all commercials and programs promoting Disney products all the time with a relentlessly perky rhythm and cast of characters.

These four films join Saving Mr. Banks in raiding different parts of the Disney vaults, finding exchange and brand-building value in extrinsic or obscure Disney-related materials, constructing and appealing to emergent and established Disney fan groups, and extending the Disney gravitational field, drawing peripheral artifacts and audiences into the Disney universe. Janet Wasko constructs a useful typology of Disney audience archetypes, from fanatics, fans and consumers through cynics, the uninterested, resisters and antagonists.[13] All five of these films target intense Disney fanatics, fans and consumers, who buy large quantities of Disney products, often cherish their insider knowledge of Disney trivia, and though they sometimes question Disney’s activities, almost always accept the general frames and explanations generated by the company’s extensive publicity, including the company’s version of its own history. Though intense fans are relatively small in number, Disney seems to have recognized that they likely have influence far beyond their numbers. They often function as unpaid publicists and/or future employees. These films in different ways address them specifically within a more general address to less engaged or knowledgeable mass audiences.

Documentary and truthiness

Perhaps more important, all of these films use the documentary mode in one way or another to present what seems like factual knowledge behind the façade of the fictional fun factory that is Disney. By now, many adults and even teenagers know there is an extensive and sometimes sordid history behind Disney’s public façade. It is one of the jobs of Disney’s perception management apparatus to seem to reduce this gap between the perceived history and the façade by updating the façade with the conventions of current documentary “truthiness,”[14]inoculating the slightly hipper and more knowledgeable of its consumers against alternative or oppositional, more critical frames.

The first three of these films are relatively conventional low-budget documentaries, made independently but within the Disney orbit. The Pixar Story, released the year after Disney bought Pixar in 2006, with John Lasseter and Steve Jobs as contemporary creatives exhibiting dimensions of Walt’s talents, traces the rise of this company which has re-energized Disney animation by challenging it both creatively and commercially. Though the film doesn’t probe this deeply, John Lasseter is emerging as a possible 21st-century Walt without the self-promotion. He is now Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios as part of a deal to preserve Pixar’s identity and its potential to provide a creative counterforce protected from Disney’s pervasive corporate culture of deadening hypercommercialism, which measures every creative idea against its ability to move merchandise and generate theme park revenue. Company management, including Lasseter, Ed Catmull, a Pixar co-founder, and Disney CEO Robert Iger, seems to be looking for a way for Pixar and Disney animation to compete productively with one another as well as with Dreamworks, Fox and other, newer producers. And this management strategy clearly owes a lot to Steve Jobs, who, as an advisor and confidant to Iger, helped ease out Eisner in 2005 and became a major force on Disney’s board of directors after Disney bought Pixar in 2006 until his death in 2011.[15]

Walt & El Grupo organizes home movies taken by Walt Disney and his wife Lillian, along with sixteen of the studio’s artists, into a travelogue about their ten-week goodwill tour of Latin America in 1941, urged by President Roosevelt to help build ties in the hemisphere to counter Nazi influence there. However, like the other films here and Disney history generally, the film neglects and devalues the cartoonists themselves in favor of their boss, who was partly avoiding a strike back in Burbank by many of his cartoonists during the summer of 1941. They were protesting precisely that devaluation in the form of low pay, forced overtime, Walt’s practice of taking credit for their work, and his authoritarian and paternalistic management.[16]

More than the other two documentaries, Saving Sleeping Beauty, focusing on Disney animation from 1984 to 1994, sometimes captures the viewpoint of the working artists who actually produce Disney and Pixar movies, since it consists largely of home movies by and interviews with animators. The film captures some of the manic creative energy, impossibly long hours and stressful working conditions of what was until recently a virtually all-male environment. The new digital animation industry often shares such working conditions with other emergent digital industries in what Andrew Ross calls “the industrialization of bohemia.”[17] And the new Disney or Pixar worker frequently shares many traits with his/her counterparts in other digital workplaces. They have a youthful ability and willingness to devote long hours to loosely-supervised creative projects organized for deadlines rather than regular production. And they prefer contingent, casual and casualized work consistent with their countercultural, artistic and anti-authoritarian attitudes.[18]

However, Saving Sleeping Beauty encloses the animators’ viewpoint within the larger priorities of Disney management, and it is directed by Don Hahn, a Disney producer. It most often turns its fascinated gaze on the over-publicized battles between the grotesquely overpaid Disney executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, intermittently mediated by Roy E. Disney and Disney President Frank Wells. The film focuses on the 1984-94 period when Eisner and Katzenberg take most of the credit for the “renaissance” of Disney feature animation with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The film ignores the later years of Eisner’s reign when, having elbowed Katzenberg out of the race to become the new Walt Disney, his outsized compensation packages, subservient board of directors, and incessant self-promotion attracted attention even from a usually uncritical business press as well as from theme park visitors grumbling about rapidly rising prices.

You will not learn from this film that this was the era when U.S. workers’ productivity began to be disconnected from their wages, when longer, more intense work hours and technological innovations resulted not in rising wages for Disney and other U.S. employees, but in ever more spectacular salaries, bonuses and golden parachutes for top owner-managers.[19] Now treated as stars, Michael Eisner and his cohort in the world’s most successful entertainment conglomerate became poster boys for this trend: In 1993 Eisner was the highest-paid executive in the country, with more than $203 million in salary and stock options. Katzenberg would later receive a golden parachute of around $100 million and Michael Ovitz over $200 million, while U.S. minimum-wage earners in 1997, including many Disney “cast members” and other theme park employees, were making $4.75 an hour.[20] If we understand that the neoliberal policies (deregulation, union-busting, authoritarian populism) of Walt’s old ally in anticommunism Ronald Reagan are gathering momentum during this period, it casts a different light on the documentary authority of the film, the animators’ photos and home movies of their meetings with the bosses, handheld images and recorded memories of the bosses’ public and private feuds, and the endearing cartoonists’ caricatures of Eisner and Katzenberg.

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