Not that anyone in the Entertainment Industry gives a fig what I think, but it’s a VERY good thing Saving Mr. Banks didn’t come out in December of 2011. Of course, Fandom Lenses wouldn’t and couldn’t have existed before The Year of Our WTF (and its two lovely encores). However, if it had I think I pretty much would have glared and shifted and grumbled and commented along the lines of this excoriation:
…What was presented as a joyless, loveless pedant finally giving herself over to the delight and imagination of the Wonderful World of Disney could just as easily been presented as a creative, passionate person, with dignity and real emotions, getting steamrolled by one of the most powerful companies in the world. Chim-chim-cheroo. —Saving Mr. Banks Left Out an Awful Lot About P.L. Travers
For the record, I do understand where this reviewer and others with similar takes are coming from. In fact, I walked into the film somewhat reluctantly, steeling myself against what I was almost certain would be two hours of character assassination. Instead, I spent the end credits in tears, guiltily texting my initial reaction to Fandom Lenses Facebook while the original tapes of Travers’ script meetings played in the background.
Then I got home, immediately started googling to do background research for this review, and read folks eviscerating the film on the grounds of both artistic integrity and feminism. At first, I was concerned I’d gotten it wrong, that I’d simply been suckered by Disney Magic(tm) into overlooking the real shadows lurking in the corners of this tidily-told tale. However, my gut said otherwise, and a wonderful review in Forbes Magazine of all places reinforced my assessment.
Saving Mr. Banks is a film that at every turn seems to defy expectations and offer something much more true and personal about life, regardless of how many committed cynics attempt to dismiss it without bothering to look more honestly and seriously at what it has to say. …pay attention to the story in front of you, to the people in this story, and to what is being said about their lives and their motivations. It’s wonderful, it’s surprisingly personal and unafraid of painful discussions, and it has far more heart and integrity in its pursuit of speaking to the human condition, to universal hopes and fears and loss and love, than you’ll expect. –Mark Hughes, Saving Mr. Banks Packs Emotional Wallop
While I understand the concerns of those who panned the movie, I thought that Saving Mr. Banks attempted to say something far more nuanced about the tension between art and commerce, the subtle but crucial difference between sentiment and heart, and the power of storytelling for both creator and fan. Whatever the “accuracy” of the screenplay, the resulting movie was a fascinating story of two complicated, headstrong, and damaged creators, and the ways they used art to explore their very different worldviews and make the world better in the process.
The Show and the Business
PAMELA: (to herself) I have final say.
(to Diarmuid): And if I don’t like what they are doing to her?
DIARMUID: You don’t sign the papers. He cannot make the film unless you grant the rights. (beat) It’s an exploratory trip. What do you say?
PAMELA (to herself): I want to keep my house.
At least since Michelangelo bickered with Julius II over his vision for the Sistine Chapel, artists and their financial backers have often had a fraught relationship. I was introduced to the story told in Saving Mr. Banks some years ago by this article in the New Yorker. I encourage you to read the whole piece, but if anything, P.L. Travers was a far more difficult creative collaborator than the movie implies. A lesser movie would have tried to condemn her for that and depict Uncle Walt as the Heroic American Male who “fixed” her utterly justified artistic integrity and sense of ownership with a spoonful of sugar and a few shakes of pixie dust. Amazingly, even though the ending of the movie isn’t exactly what was described in the New Yorker, I truly don’t feel the movie betrayed the “truth” of what was absolutely a tumultuous collaboration. I don’t care that Emma Thompson didn’t start rattling off a list of needed edits to Tom Hanks after the premiere, only to be told that “the ship has sailed”, nor that those (historically known) tears in the theater were probably not inspired by some grand catharsis. The relationships between artists (and people) are almost always more complicated than they appear from outside or (worse yet) in the media, and Saving Mr. Banks captures that complexity in a way that is rare in any movie, and outright shocking in a Disney movie that features Walt Disney. A surprising number of Uncle Walt’s flaws made it on screen, from his smoker’s cough to his canny ability to wield either folksy charm or steely determination as needed to achieve complete control over his vision. After all, a collaborative leadership style doesn’t result in a scriptwriter urgently whispering “Man is in the Forest” as Walt strides down the hall to the writers’ room. In some ways, such an unstoppable force can best be understood by putting it in conflict with an immovable object, played here by one P.L. Travers. Pamela was also flawed and somewhat broken–I don’t know enough about her to say whether she was actually a genius, but she certainly wanted to be one. If nothing else she was tenaciously protective of her work. She considered Mary Poppins and the Banks family as nothing less than family members, a statement echoed in Walt Disney’s comments about “the mouse” later in the film. While Travers’ personal life and spirituality were substantially tidied up for Saving Mr. Banks, the devotion she felt to her characters and their accurate portrayal within the film adaptation of Mary Poppins seems true to life. Reality may not have been quite as neat as the tale told here, but Saving Mr. Banks poses a nuanced argument that one can find a middle path that simultaneously protects one’s art and pays the mortgage.
Heart or Schmaltz?
PAMELA: This whole script is flim-flam! Where is its reality? Where is its heart, where is the gravitas? (She opens a window and flings the script out)
No weight! See?
(Dick, Don and Bob look out of the window as the pages flutter downwards and spread themselves over the Disney lot.)
WALT: No whimsy or sentiment says the woman who sends a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children.
PAMELA: You think Mary Poppins is saving the children, Mr. Disney?
If the story of Saving Mr. Banks is to be believed, it took a while for the creative team to find the core of the story they were trying to tell in Mary Poppins. That core was the story of a father who learned to love, even while being surrounded by “cold, heartless money”. Saving Mr Banks argues that for sentimentality to work in a story, it must be earned. In a way, the very fact that the movie touched me in the way that it did is proof of that thesis. As discussed above, the movie could and by all expectations should have devolved into propagandist pap. Instead, the movie treated the viewers like adults, and took its time in building two formidable, sympathetic characters and putting them in direct conflict. There are no easy answers for the audience. In one scene you find yourself cheering for Pamela as she stuffs a hotel roomful of aggressively cheerful Disney Whimsy into a closet, but in the next you sympathize with Walt, Don, and the Sherman Brothers as they craft her novels into what was easily the best movie Walt Disney ever made. While the end of Saving Mr Banks is never in doubt, you will spend almost two hours wondering how these formidable souls ever came to a truce. Whether or not such an event happened in real life, Walt and Pamela’s climactic conversation over a pot of tea tells a deeper truth about the humanity in all artists and the forces that often drive the creative impulse. By taking me on a journey through P.L .Travers’ childhood and Disney’s creative process, warts and all, the film earned my trust. I set aside my inherent suspicion of the movie’s premise in the face of two fully realized human beings. And when Walt Disney sat down at Pamela Travers’ table for that climactic cup of tea, she was not the only cynic convinced by his speech.
Story as salvation
WALT: I love my life – it’s a miracle. And I loved my daddy, boy I loved him. But, there isn’t a day goes by where I don’t think of that little boy in the snow and old Elias with his fist and strap and I’m just so tired– I’m tired of remembering it that way. Aren’t you tired, Mrs. Travers? We all have our tales but don’t you want to find a way to finish the story? Let it all go and have a life that isn’t dictated by the past?
It’s not the children she comes to save. It’s their father.
Ultimately, in order to accept Saving Mr. Banks as a good movie, you must accept its central premise. According to the film, stories have the capacity to transform those who experience them. While Pamela may not have consciously understood why she was so reluctant to give up total control of her fictional world, she understood the power of story. Creators can be healed by their creations too, as both Walt and Pamela are only too aware. However, Saving Mr. Banks argues that for a creation to fully flourish and in so doing allow a writer to finish the interior story that inspired the creative impulse, it must be set free to come alive to new people in new ways. Mary Poppins never left P.L Travers–she wrote four more Poppins books after signing over her movie rights, and even authorized a stage musical in the final years of her life that incorporated aspects of both her books and the movie. However, by letting her creations grow into a fuller life beyond her pen, they matured in unexpected ways, molding two generations of children (this writer included) in the process. No doubt that Disney’s Mary Poppins was not the legacy P.L Travers initially intended to leave behind, but nonetheless it is a fitting tribute to her complex spiritual journey and her deeply troubled but good-hearted father. In a similar vein, P.L. Travers might not agree with every aspect of her portrayal in Saving Mr. Banks, and no doubt Uncle Walt would probably have some choice expletives for Tom Hanks. But then again, something tells me that both of them would agree with the core message of the film. Then again, they just might both approve of a new ending that was dictated as much by art and compassion as by the details of history.
Conclusion: Choosing a new lens
WALT: I swear that every time a person goes into a movie house – from Leicester Square to St Louis, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him and his kids, they will weep for his cares, and wring their hands when he loses his job. And when he flies that kite, oh! They will rejoice, they will sing. In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.
I’ve changed a great deal by writing and living the stories told in these pages. The title of this blog, dreamed up in the spur of the moment to honor a really good class I’d just taken (and because it was more accessible than the runner-up “frodisbazinga.com”), seems to become more accurate with every post I write. Over the course of the journey chronicled in the blog, I’ve learned that by choosing to look at a story from a different angle or a new setting, one can actually heal oneself, and sometimes even the wider world. That’s ultimately why the strengths of Saving Mr. Banks so outweighed the weaknesses for me as to render them pretty much meaningless.
Saving Mr. Banks argues that each of us can choose the ways that we are effected by the art we create and consume. By accepting reality as it is, paradoxically we can begin to learn how to transcend and transmute it. At least according to the movie, both Pamela and Walt were changed by their struggle over Mary Poppins. By creating and adapting the story, each seemed to grow as creators and humans, and each was better for the process. Now, I know that Walt Disney never flew to London. There was probably no deep conversation over whiskey-laced tea. But something influenced P.L. Travers to sign over her rights, and my gut tells me that iron-willed force of nature was motivated by more than her house payment. We will probably never know exactly what transpired between Walt Disney and Pamela Travers, and maybe that’s for the best. That unanswerable question leaves room for imagination and mystery, forces that were both very important to P.L. Travers. As I’ve said before on other topics, as I can never know what really happened, I think I’ll go with the version of history I like. In any case, I’ve spent the last two years here restoring order with–if not imagination, than at least analysis. Why on earth should I stop now?
Next time: I’ve procrastinated as long as I can. We’re gonna have to climb down from the esoteric heights to discuss Duck Dynasty and Martin Freeman. And apparently Kevin Smith just had to smack down some of his fans for waging sexist attacks on a reviewer. *sigh*.
January 21, 2014 at 7:00 pm
I went to see “Saving Mr. Banks” not too long after you posted this. It echoed with me very differently, and it took me quite a while to figure out what I could say about it. Perhaps, if I had watched it four or five times it would have been easier; I usually watched a Monkees episode a dozen times or more while figuring out what to say in a review.
I went to see the movie with my mother. We’re not really much about going to movies together, but every Christmas season there seems to be a movie we can relate to together. There was “The King’s Speech,” and “Hyde Park on the Hudson.” We even went to see “Hairspray” together, which was very interesting because she grew up in segregated Baltimore.
I just realized what the common element is in all these films: They are all set in eras that she remembers and I don’t. They all represent moments that were formative for her and are simply history for me. But I’m fascinated by history, and the films give us something to talk about.
So what was so unusual about “Saving Mr. Banks” was that history was not the subject of our conversation afterwards. To my surprise, the film touched both of us in a very personal way. Turns out that “Mary Poppins” was the very first movie my parents ever took me to see, and Mom seemed disappointed that I did not know this. I must have been 2 or 3 years old at the time, which seems like a very young age to take a child to a movie theater, but nonetheless she insists that this is true. She got emotional at the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” scene and was a happy, weepy lump of emotions for the rest of the film. “Mary Poppins” is precious to her in a way that it has never been precious to me.
To my surprise, the modern scenes set in London and Los Angeles did not resonate with me. I saw them as transactional: the negotiations, the conflicts, the lyrics, the sets, the script. I never got emotionally involved in Travers’ passion for her book. The heavy dramatic touchstones (the driver’s disabled daughter, Disney’s abusive father) that marked the turning points in the 1962 part of the story sometimes irritated me, as though they were bits of emotional blackmail inserted to tug the required heartstrings and move the story from A to B to Z.
The aspect of the film that resonated with me were the flashback scenes set in Australia. I had no idea that the film would be so evenly divided between the “now” of 1962 and the memories of the little girl and her Daddy. And I also had no idea that the “daddy issues” that Travers brought to the business negotiations with Disney were what they were. I arrived at the theater expecting to learn that her father had been absent, or cold, or abusive. It never occurred to me that he would be warm and creative and loving and alcoholic.
Because, by God, those words describe my own father very well.
It was a very different movie that I saw.
One last observation. As I watched Emma Thompson’s Travers weeping helplessly in the theater as she watched Disney’s “Mary Poppins” for the first time, I couldn’t help that she had a gentleman to her left, a gentleman to her right, Walt Disney himself sitting directly behind her and not one of those bastards offered her a handkerchief. Why did that bother me so much?