Nothing short of brilliant as Walter Elias Disney in SAVING MR. BANKS, Tom Hanks took his own trip into the past preparing for the film and his performance. As much a fixture as Mickey Mouse to generations of children who grew up on weekly visits with the Disney television anthology, Walt Disney’s look and voice are ingrained in our collective consciousness, creating a double-edged sword for Hanks to walk. Do you capture the essence of the man or go for an imitation or try and find the perfect balance? As comes as no surprise, Hanks finds that perfect balance.
In a visual sense, Hanks is quick to admit, “I don’t look too much like [Disney], but there is a line, there is an angular figure you can get from the boxiness of the suits and playing around with various pieces of hair.” By 1961, Walt Disney was very much already Walt Disney. “He is the accomplished artist, industrialist, that he was.”
According to Hanks, Disney’s vocal cadence “took a while to figure out. But a lot of the little anecdotes that we found, specifically from the likes of Richard Sherman and [that] were already in the screenplay, like Walt’s cough. . .just ends up being one of the delightful cards in the deck.” Key for Hanks was that “Diane Disney Miller gave me unlimited access to the archives and the museum in San Francisco. . .So, I had a lot of video and audio that I could work with which, the only handicap, there was a lot of it is ‘Walt Disney playing Walt Disney’. . .The surprises came down to the fact that, coming from Diane, about how much of just a regular Dad this guy was.”
Notable is that the film avoids the extraneous elements of Disney’s life beyond “Mary Poppins”, such as elements of McCarthyism, his three-pack-a-day-cigarette habit (although there is reference to the habit and Disney’s desire to keep it from being seen by the public), and the harsher qualities of a major studio head, none of which are missed in Hanks’ performance and the film as a whole.
“There is a lot of anecdotal information that kept coming to us. There were people, who knew Walt, and they still have access to the studio. . .they searched us out. Richard Sherman was, a never-ending, literally, never-ending, fountain of stories, of facts, of anecdotes, bits and pieces of everything that had happened.”
Expounding on his research experience, Hanks notes, “There’s an ocean of cadence to the man and that true sense that he believed everything that he said about his projects. And he completely embraced the possibilities of wonder in the movies that he was going to make as well as the rides he was going to come up with, and the things that he was going to build. I had a lot, I had a great road map in order to search it out.” The result is a strong, loving performance that allows us to be immersed in this one moment in time, this one chapter of the man who was Walt Disney.