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"The Dead Hand of Walt Disney": Harlan Ellison Reviews 'Saving Mr. Banks'

by Sam Adams
December 17, 2013 5:26 PM
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Back in November, Variety published an article by science fiction author Harlan Ellison temperately titled "Awards Shows Must Die!" in which he argued:

Those who give the awards exchange ballots among each other's categories, provide a pasha's fortune to publicity flak-providers, logroll, solicit and hustle shamelessly to pit every talent against every other talent, making it a transparent and debased three-card Monte scam. Phoney deified. Ass-kissing sanctified. As Bogart called it: "A mugg’s game."

But when he had a few things so say about Saving Mr. Banks he didn't even bother pitching the industry Bible. Instead, he set up a video camera so he could express his feelings about the film without going through an editorial filter.

Those views, as you may imagine, are not especially moderate. "I am not given to obfuscating," he warns. "I am not given to ice skating around the edge of the rink."

Wearing a Jiminy Cricket watch beneath a print of Disney's Pinocchio, Ellison calls himself "a child of the Disney era" whose first movie, when he was three years old, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But by the time he's referring to Disney as "the octopoidal matrix," it's pretty clear where he's going to come down.

Tom Hanks, he allows is very good as Walt Disney. And Emma Thompson, as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, is "absolutely breathtaking." But the character she's playing is "a hateful, spiteful, obstinate, intransigent woman" whose desire to protect the character she created ends with an invented scene where she sees the error of her ways. Ellison admits he's biased against those who try to change an artist's work, but as for the film, well... "The word bullshit keeps coming to mind."

Here's Ellison's full review:

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  • Robert Paul | December 21, 2013 2:38 PMReply

    I will probably see the movie. When you do a piece like this there needs to be some dramatization to make it more adaptable to the screen. If they wanted to make a documentary Disney would've done that but they did that somewhat with the Mary Poppins DVD. I can see Ellison's point - with this Disney is probably changing history and the real story will be overshadowed by 'Saving Mr. Banks' but this wouldn't be the first time Hollywood changed a true story for a feel good ending.

  • Art Brown | December 21, 2013 1:11 PMReply

    Jeez Ellison. Get to the point. If you can't... we have something now called editing. I stopped listening about 4 minutes in. It's clear you're upset about something, but I still don't know what yet, and stopped caring - cause you're wasting my time.

    By the way, I thought it was an absolutely wonderful film - obviously there was artistic license, obviously Walt would come off as the hero - it was made by his studio. If I want more historically accurate perspective, there's the internet.

  • Claire Foster | December 21, 2013 9:46 AMReply

    Mr. Ellison, my mother introduced me to your work. It made of me a lifelong fan. I just saw your critique of...Saving Mr. Banks...I loved it...I chuckled my way through it. You are just like I thought you would be. spit it out...if you want bullshit...go elsewhere. I will certainly not waste my time or money on the film...although I am a great Emma Thompson fan. Thank you.

  • Donna Bayar Repsher | December 20, 2013 12:47 PMReply

    Thank you, Harlan Ellison, as always, for your brilliant writing and especially for your honesty.

  • Douwe | December 19, 2013 5:00 PMReply

    What Harlan Ellison is talking about is Hollywood Revisionism . I was a Disney Child , myself , and liked Disney's Mary Poppins . Pamela Travers was certainly a individual feminist writer , and not particularly well received as an author , maybe very much like Jennifer Rowlings .

  • Bobby | December 19, 2013 3:56 AMReply

    Yawn, another critic. This is not a "covered up" story. Disney Studios released a movie two years ago called "The Boys" about the Sherman Bros. The real story was covered in all its ugly glory - including Walt's true parting words to her at the premiere. This is fictionalized movie based on actual events, sheesh -- live a little.

  • Brand Eks | December 19, 2013 4:58 PM

    This isn't just "another critic". This is Harlan Ellison. Have some respect.

  • Laurie | December 18, 2013 9:43 PMReply

    Most of you are, I believe, missing Ellison's point (not hard, the way he rambles). Not only did Disney wear Travers down and turn her artistic property into something she hated, NOW Disney is creating a fiction that Travers liked the movie after all. First they fake her work, then they fake HER.

    I love Mary Poppins the movie, and it did lead me to read Travers' books when I was young, so there's that. To me, they are two completely different things.

  • J Milligan | December 18, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    Good review, needs some editing. Looks like some was done but it runs on too long and guy goes off on tangents and loses train of thought several times. Prune it down to key five minutes and put it out there.

  • J Milligan | December 18, 2013 8:17 PM

    Should that matter?

  • James | December 18, 2013 3:10 PM

    You do know who Harlan Ellison is, right?

  • J Milligan | December 18, 2013 1:41 PM

    Oh love it when he refers to himself as very famous. Cut that too.

  • Liadan | December 18, 2013 1:12 PMReply

    P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins was a racist. Its true she hated the film and never came around to liking it. Disney's Mary Poppins movie did her a service. The books would be consigned to oblivion without it. By all reports, Travers *was* distasteful woman.

  • Rick Freiberg | December 18, 2013 1:22 PM

    "The books would be consigned to oblivion without it" That's probably true of several Disney versions. I doubt Pinocchio would still be read without the Disney version keeping it on people's minds. And the Disney version is hugely different from the book, but since Collodi was long dead when it was made, I guess it's not an issue. Only when the writer is around to beef about it!

  • Rob Bush | December 18, 2013 12:53 PMReply

    In the documentary on the Mary Poppins DVD, they state that P.L. Travers never did like the movie. The idea that she did is just for the movie. Disney is not saying this is exactly true in every respect.

  • Lee M. | December 18, 2013 12:25 PMReply

    For the record,"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," not "Dwarves."

  • R. Francis Smith | December 19, 2013 7:36 PM

    Right on. "Dwarves" is a Tolkien neologism (admittedly not all that neo now), isn't it? Likewise "elves"?

  • Rick Freiberg | December 18, 2013 10:01 AMReply

    I see Ellison's point about Travers being done a mis-service here. However, I'm not sure that matters much, because she's a pretty obscure figure. If we are going to get mad every time Hollywood takes a lightly-known name from history and writes their character to suit a movie plot, we are going to be mad all the time, because this happens all the time. Even with really famous people, like Lincoln. Tempest is right, it's just a movie. People will forget about it in six months. But the Poppins books will go on.

  • James | December 18, 2013 3:36 PM

    Personally I tend to like the truth, or at least sticking as close to it as possible. How obscure a person might be really doesn't matter, and as long as I can check the actual facts (which one should do with any film based on true events). Still our willingness to allow people to bend the facts for the sake of "entertainment" goes a long way toward explaining why the average American seems so ignorant of history in general.

  • BBMDad | December 18, 2013 9:47 AMReply

    Whether or not I agree with Mr. Ellison isn't important to me. I love the passion he brings to everything. If I invited him to this thing, and even if I was in a complete state of disagreement with him on it, I would be in an enormous rush to have another showing of another film at my house and invite him just to hear his take on it. Absolutely fascinating, and refreshing. Most things being produced in the entertainment industry now are complete shit, but without frustrating, obtuse people like Mr. Ellison tilting against the windmills, it would ALL be shit.

  • Zee | December 19, 2013 1:08 AM

    LOVE your comment! I do hope that his review doesn't have a backlash and that people he knows aren't turned off from inviting him to other viewings. It is, as you say, "refreshing" to get his take on such things.

  • James | December 18, 2013 3:13 PM

    Exactly. There are few people I can enjoy listening to, even when I may disagree with them. At least when it's Ellison, I can rest assured that its an informed opinion.

  • Tempest Teapot | December 18, 2013 8:16 AMReply

    Mary Poppins was a good movie, just like Disney's Jungle Book. Both were miles away from the original literary works, and that's to be expected...they are just MOVIES. If you want art, read the books.

    As for the assault on truth...everything I've heard about PL Travers makes me think Emma Thompson did her a kindness. Ultimately the end result of Ellison's video rant is he won't get invited to any more screening parties.

  • HH17 | December 20, 2013 9:50 PM

    I haven't heard of that, but sure! Even garbage like Porky's II, Catwoman, and Rob Zombie's Halloween are art. Not very good art in my opinion, but art nonetheless.

  • Tempest Teapot | December 18, 2013 8:18 PM

    "Every motion picture ever made is art."

    Even Break Dance 2? Are you sure?

  • HH17 | December 18, 2013 6:19 PM

    Every motion picture ever made is art. Every book ever written is art. Every paining ever done is art. Every sculpture ever done is art. It's all subjective on if you like it or not, or if it has merit to you, but it's all art. I don't particularly like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus' music, but it's still "art," whether you like it or not. No need to sound snobby...

    A movie based on a book has just as much merit as any other film. What would make it different? It is it's own project, and in a completely different medium. It's not copying something else. It's using something else to make it's own thing. Some chose to stick close to the book in meaning and content (which does or doesn't work, depending on the story), and some chose to make the project their own, and whether it all works or not is subjective. But it's "art" just the same.

  • Tempest Teapot | December 18, 2013 11:57 AM

    Sure, some of them are art. But not funster flicks like Saving Mr. Banks. I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were bringing Fellini into this. You can call Disney flicks pop art, I suppose. This doesn't change the fact that expecting literary works of caliber to somehow be translated into an equally artistic expression in a two-hour film is pretty unrealistic.

    The most artistic movies tend to be ones written as such...not "film versions" of books. But that's not what Ellison was talking about anyway, so this is sliding off-topic.

  • HH17 | December 18, 2013 11:42 AM

    Are you saying movies AREN'T art? Because they most certainly are. Your comment is highly insulting to those passionate about cinema.

  • Minerva | December 18, 2013 4:58 AMReply

    @tom hanks: well for starters, i don't think tom hanks wrote the remark below. your remarks are typical of someone who hasn't accomplished much and seems ravaged by jealousy. regardless, ellison is the real mogambi and been around the biz long enough to know how backstabbing it is - or front stabbing, as he likes to call it. as such, any lawsuit he has filed has had probable cause given the extent to which people have difficulty in hollywood giving credit where credit is due. i've always wondered why producers think they can change a writers work. really? the thought of altering another's work should simply not be permitted. i think why it happens is because the non creative folk- namely producers - couldn't make it from a creative perspective and are looking to attach their name to a piece of success by saying "that was my idea" when in truth, they haven't a creative bone in their body.

  • Tom Hanks | December 18, 2013 12:37 AMReply

    Well, Harlan, I guess this means you're gonna figure out a way to sue the filmmakers for half a mil for wasting one of your afternoons. God knows you've been behind a least a dozen way less frivolous lawsuits. It is how you've made a living over the last thirty years since people don't buy what you write anymore, right?

  • Mark Cofta | December 20, 2013 6:50 PM

    Classy response, Tom Hanks: you don't like the criticism, so you demean the critic with snarky falsehoods. People DO buy what Harlan writes, and his lawsuits take a stand against corporations that would otherwise trample writers and other artists. Playing a self-invented god doesn't make you one, Hanks.

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