2013 Starring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell – Directed by John Lee Hancock
Saving Mr. Banks was a bit of a disappointment to me, but it did make an impact, mostly before I’d even seen it. I was not aware of the story of how Walt Disney coaxed, cajoled and finessed his way to the rights of Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, who was a complicated woman (to put it mildly) and highly protective of her work; so even before I saw the movie, I developed a reawakened interest in the film version Mary Poppins, Walt Disney, the Mary Poppins books and a new interest in P.L. Travers. In that respect, the movie was highly successful.
However, when I finally saw it, the actual movie was a letdown. I was slightly bored. I feel it was a movie that would have benefited from a tighter narrative. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are marvelous as Disney and Travers. Hanks is exactly how I imaged Disney was (at least when dealing with people outside his staff) and Thompson’s Travers is so acerbic, but brittle and seems on the verge of breaking any minute. But what I wanted was to see more of them.
But there are frequent flashbacks to Travers’ childhood, which contain no particular tension and goes by like a sluggish dream. I’ve been watching a lot of old movies and it has surprised me how effective it is to eschew flashbacks and simply have a character tell their story or the story of someone else, and perhaps that would have been difficult to do, but it seems Saving Mr. Banks would have been stronger if it had stayed in the present tense and revealed her past in some other way.
What really intrigued me about the film were the reactions to it. Many people enjoyed the film and though they sympathized with Travers, were glad the books were turned into the movie so many know and love. On the other hand, other people viewed the film as a travesty, perpetuating the travesty of another film. One writer felt Saving Mr. Banks showed Travers being steamrolled by corporate Disney, which then committed artistic rape and turned her books into a simplistic, sugary concoction.
They argued that Travers was not portrayed as a fully creative human, but a one-dimensional pill. Others argue that the film is about a specific slice of time and that she really was a pill in those recordings of their meetings.
The author of the screenplay, Kelly Marcel, defended her choice to change the ending (Travers cried during the premier because she was dismayed by the movie, but Marcel turns her tears into a cathartic moment regarding her father) and she said, “It just wasn’t the story I was telling. I was telling the story of the father and the daughter. For me, this movie is not about the making of Mary Poppins, it’s about parents’ relationships with their children, and redemption, and forgiveness, and how our relationships with our parents affect us as adults.” The interviewer, however, came down on the side of Travers’ books and felt that the ending is a betrayal of her.
In fairness, I think one’s reaction might have a lot to do with how much you like the movie and how much you like the books. If you feel the movie was a cloying, simplistic version of the more complicated books, then the movie might look like a celebration of a desecration. If you liked the movie, however, then it might seem like an interesting story about the making of a movie you cherished and a bit about the life of the woman who inspired it.
Whatever the film is, it is not meant to be biographical. It could have dealt with other aspects of her life, like the fact that she was a mother, but perhaps the screenwriter felt that if we had dealt with it the audience might have had less sympathy for her since she apparently had a fraught relationship with her son, Camillus, whose widow said she was relieved that he was not mentioned in the film.
It’s fairly respectful of P.L. Travers, despite concerns that the film wants us to celebrate Disney bullying her into giving him the rights. There is some self-reflective, gentle poking at Disneyfication. It’s subtle, but the audience is clearly invited to identify with Travers and not Walt Disney. We are looking at Disney through her eyes when he invites her to go to Disneyland or when her room is filled with Disney paraphernalia. Walt Disney is largely opaque in the movie, which is appropriate, since the film is not about him. The movie allows the audience to see their opinions reflected in Travers’ expressed opinions, like when she complains that the movie makes life seem too easy when Mary Poppins used her magic to do things like clean their room.
If Travers seems one-dimensional in the film, it’s possibly because the script is focused specifically on her and her relationship with her father. People are made up of many relationships, but because of the specific focus, we only see one side of her. Perhaps if the flashbacks had included more of her life past her childhood…perhaps not. Perhaps I don’t know what I wanted from the film. 🙂
The film has also brought out some debate regarding Walt Disney. I’ve been a little surprised at the animus directed at him. I’ve been reading a biography about him and honestly, he seems no more worthy of animus than any other studio head at the time. He’s been called antisemitic, a closet Nazi and a racist – none of which is true, though he had the usual insensitivity of his era. It’s not that I’m excusing him, but I feel that he is as much a fully human, creative individual as Travers and they both deserved to be understood as such.
The truly lovely aspect to all the debate is that whatever movies are made and however people are misunderstood or misrepresented, the original books still remain to be read, the real Travers and Disney remain to be understood, the movie Mary Poppins remains, and at least what Saving Mr. Banks did is to remind us of that.
Margaret Lyons writes in an article on Vulture about some of the things the movie did not cover about Travers’ life and also felt that the film portrayed Travers as a “joyless, loveless pedant finally giving herself over to the delight and imagination of the Wonderful World of Disney” instead of “a creative, passionate person, with dignity and real emotions, getting steamrolled by one of the most powerful companies in the world.”
Aisha Harris, on Slate’s Culture Blog, analyzes the accuracies and inaccuracies of the film’s portray of the meeting between Disney and Travers.
Jerry Griswold, in an article on SDSU Children’s Literature, agrees largely with Lyons. He writes, “call Emma Thompson’s character anybody else, and I have no problem. But associate her with P.L. Travers – a generous and kind woman, albeit with a no-nonsense manner of a Zen master – and I have to cry foul.” He goes on to write that “her book Mary Poppins is profound – though let me tell you from experience, it’s hard to persuade people to sample it because of the Disney movie…” In an aside on Griswold’s statement, I can appreciate how it would be difficult to watch a movie version of someone you knew and admired. I wouldn’t appreciate it, either, simply because no film portrayal could ever hope to encompass the multidimensional flesh-and-blood person you knew. However, I, and several people I know, did come to the book through the movie.
For an interesting look at Travers’ life and her relationship with he son, David Jones gives a fairly detailed look at her life and a bit about her son, Camillus, and his twin brother, who she chose not to adopt.
And for a fairly thorough look at Walt Disney and his life and studio, Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: the Triumph of the American Imagination is highly informative, not only about Disney, but the making of his cartoon and featured films.