While Tom Hanks is the first actor to portray Walt Disney on the big screen in “Saving Mr. Banks”, there seems to be a neglecting in the media to point out he isn’t the first actor to portray Walt Disney in the media. If you include the TV movie as a longtime form of entertainment, then you can include a portrayal that took place already in 1995. It was in “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story” where a brief portrayal of Walt Disney was attempted by a top actor, even if the persona wasn’t the best in the world.
If you’ve ever heard of Canadian actor Len Cariou, then you’re aware of how ubiquitous this actor has been in the world of TV and movies for the last 30 years. Starting out on the stage, he became the most famous there for starring alongside Angela Lansbury in “Sweeney Todd.” Later, he appeared as a regular on Lansbury’s “Murder, She Wrote” series, followed by years of character acting parts in TV and movies that goes on to this day. But if you saw his portrayal of Walt Disney in the Annette Funicello movie above, you might wonder what more could have been done.
Despite Cariou being a great actor, his Walt was strictly by-the-book avuncular. Not that there should be any fault to that considering it was only a few scenes showing him introducing Funicello to the studio or desk scenes. Those who remember the performance might have wished for something more when the lack of physical resemblance between Cariou and Walt was more than apparent.
More than that, it was the voice of Walt Disney that was neglected in the portrayal. With Tom Hanks’ insightful performance in “Saving Mr. Banks”, we finally see a little more care put into capturing that familiar cadence. Despite that, Hanks makes Disney’s Midwest accent sound a little overemphasized at times. It just shows how much of a challenge it really is to capture a perfectly natural performance of Uncle Walt. Out of all people in the history of Hollywood who can usually be impersonated to a tee, it’s impossible to completely remove all suspension of disbelief when interpreting Walt Disney.
That proves how much of a challenge it may be for future portrayals of Walt Disney. Now that Tom Hanks managed to open the gates to interpreting Walt on the big screen, perhaps we’ll see Disney the company relent and allow more portrayals that give a fuller picture of how he influenced pop culture. With the Neal Gabler biography still an excellent source for a biopic, it’s still going to be a problem trying to create one comprehensive movie.
As “Saving Mr. Banks” proves, it may be better to create snapshot movies that take place in a specific period of time rather than spanning larger time frames. With more movies being done that show the behind-the-scenes stories in how classic movies were made, we’re already seeing how the snapshot biopic can work. As we saw with “I’m Not There” in the numerous portrayals of Bob Dylan, it’s well worth seeing the art of different actors portraying an icon.
Seeing other interpretations of Walt Disney in different times of his life can potentially bring at least 10 different films that could be fascinating in their own right. These can span from Walt’s earliest years on up to his last year in 1966.
Back when I wrote about the potentials of a biopic on Walt Disney, someone in the comment section recommended Edward Norton as the perfect choice. You could say he has the best facial characteristics (particularly the nose) to portray a young Walt, as well as perhaps having the ability to get the proper vocal inflections down.
In the meantime, Hanks will have to be the new template to go on. It’s still a leap forward from placing a gentle actor in a business suit with a moustache.