Saving Mary Poppins

saving-mr-banks (via DisneyTube)

When I first heard about Saving Mr. Banks and saw the movie trailer, I was perplexed. I thought, How can this movie possibly end well? Because it’s well established that, in reality, P. L. Travers HATED the Disney version of Mary Poppins. She was so angry about it that she ended up in tears at the movie’s premiere. She subsequently refused to give Disney any of the sequel rights, and when theater producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her about the Broadway musical, she relented only under the condition that no one from the Disney film’s production would collaborate on the play (which most notably excluded the Sherman Brothers from writing any additional songs).

That’s the story anyway. Being a Disney fan, I’ve learned tidbits such as these about the Travers/Disney relationship over time, and it all basically leads to the same conclusion: P. L. Travers and Disney (both the man and the company) were never on amicable terms. Ever. So why would the Walt Disney Company, of all studios, make a movie about an unpleasant event in its history and that, moreover, doesn’t seem to show Walt or the company in a good light?

Before I go any further, I just want to make clear that I love Saving Mr. Banks. It’s easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. The cast, in particular, is phenomenal. Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are fantastic, of course, and have deservedly been touted during the film’s publicity. However, the film’s supporting cast may be getting unjustly overlooked as a result. Colin Farrell gives, I think, the most admirable performance of his career. Paul Giamatti is heartwarming as Mrs. Travers’s driver, Ralph, in the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from one of Hollywood’s top character actors. I also loved Jason Schwartzman’s and B. J. Novak’s portrayal of the Sherman brothers, not to mention Bradley Whitford, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxton, Annie Rose Buckley (who plays the young P. L. Travers), Ruth Wilson and, surely we can’t forget, Rachel Griffiths as Aunt Ellie a.k.a. the inspiration for Mary Poppins (who should have been in the movie more, if you ask me).

Many questions ran through my head after seeing the film, given the impression I already had about the real events: Exactly how much did Travers’s relationship with her own father influence the Mary Poppins stories? Did Travers really dance when she first heard “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”? Really? Was Emma Thompson’s portrayal of P. L. Travers accurate? Are events skewed in Walt Disney’s favor? In essence, I was asking myself, Can the real story as portrayed in Saving Mr. Banks be trusted? The short answer, in my opinion, is yes. But here’s the thing-I don’t blame the critics for saying no. (To give you an idea, click here. This argument against Saving Mr. Banks seems to reflect the general sentiment.)

colin-farrell-saving-mr-banks-ginty(via Beliefnet)

Several times Saving Mr. Banks points out how Walt Disney went against Travers’s input, which I suppose is meant to be a wink to the audience about how Disney was ultimately right (and he was), but I also felt sorry for her. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that, yes, A LOT of P. L. Travers’s feedback was blatantly ignored. She didn’t want Dick Van Dyke as Burt; she didn’t want the movie to be a musical; and she certainly didn’t want any of the film to be animated. There were other sticking points too, but those seem to be the main ones. Change those aspects alone, and can you imagine what Mary Poppins might have become? I think it could have been awesome! A sincere family drama. But the Disney version as we know it is awesome too. There’s no denying that. However, l do get uncomfortable thinking about this. I’d probably be horrified too in her position. Regardless of how wonderful and well received the final film was, this is unfair to Travers, maybe more so because the Disney film was so successful.

I’ll admit that the only idea I have of the Mary Poppins character is from the Disney movie. I’ve never read the books, though I know I should. One of the funny things about watching Saving Mr. Banks, probably in no small amount due to Emma Thompson’s brilliantly sympathetic performance, is that you understand Travers’s frustration. As you’re listening to Travers stand up for her art, you start to wonder what would Travers’s onscreen version of Mary Poppins be like? Because I don’t think P. L. Travers was stupid. Underneath the pettiness, she had some valid objections. The fact of the matter is, though the end product was great, we probably missed out on something equally great as a result. I would be very interested to know what her movie would’ve been like. I’m beginning to realize that maybe having only Disney’s version of Mary Poppins in my head is sad, but that’s my own fault. Don’t blame this on Disney. Tell me I should read the books.

And yet, even after considering all of this, there is still one thing I can’t quite figure out. If P. L. Travers hated Walt Disney and what the studio was doing to Mary Poppins SO much, then why did she sign over the rights? She was perfectly in her power to deny them, and yet she did it anyway even though it was obvious that nothing was going her way. Saving Mr. Banks attempts to answer this question, relating it somehow to the biographical information that we learn in the film. But if there’s one skepticism (not really criticism, per se) I have about Saving Mr. Banks, and I admit it is a big one, it is that, as poetic as it is, I think we can only take P. L. Travers’s motivations as portrayed in the movie as speculation at best. It’s impossible to know what P. L. Travers was thinking at any given moment or if her father had anything to do with her decisions. But it was a nice way to combine the two aspects of P. L. Travers’s life, and you do learn more about her in the process.

Besides, I don’t think the “saving Mr. Banks” theme that permeates the film is completely groundless. Perhaps it was indeed inspired by an actual comment from Travers herself that Mary Poppins doesn’t come to save the children, but the father. Perhaps it’s more a representation of how Walt Disney identified with the story. (In which case, would it have been more appropriate to flashback to Walt Disney’s childhood instead?) The film does hint at Walt’s relationship with his father when he and Travers have their heart-to-heart in London. Or maybe it was a theme that became apparent to the filmmakers as they researched the life and work of P. L. Travers. Either way, the idea of “saving Mr. Banks” had a significant effect on how Disney’s Mary Poppins evolved, and it became the heart of Disney’s version, so I can’t fault Disney for focusing on it. Maybe it was their way of reminding us, or teaching us, what the legacy of Disney’s Mary Poppins really is.

Update: Now that I’ve read the first Mary Poppins book (see my Goodreads review here), as well as some additional comments about the development of the Mary Poppins film, it seems to me the “saving Mr. Banks” theme (i.e., the idea that Mary Poppins’s purpose is to save the father and not the children) first emerged in the Mary Poppins movie script and not the original stories. Specifically, it was a theme the Disney team emphasized in order to give Travers’s vignettes from the book a more unified storyline. (Indeed, Mr. Banks is hardly present, at least in the first book, at all.)

The genius of Saving Mr. Banks then, is in showing us what P. L. Travers and Disney had in common (through the parallels of P. L. Travers’s childhood and Disney’s reinterpretation of Mary Poppins) in spite of the clashing that took place. Something neither side realized at the time, but through the lens of research, time and history, maybe now we can appreciate.

I believe that neither Travers’s nor Disney’s version of Mary Poppins is better or worse, they’re just different. But because they’re so different, their visions clashed, much like Travers and Walt Disney themselves. There’s no way both versions of the character could have been in the same film, so someone eventually had to win out. The winner, in this case, was Walt.

saving_mr_banks_official_006(via SF Station)

So it’s at least understandable when naysayers look at Walt Disney’s part in the story and think he was a lying, stealing, manipulative, sweet-talking, traitorous corporate bigwig who distorted Mary Poppins irreparably for generations of people. It’s kind of hard not to notice why. But I think such accusations are just as unfair to Walt as Disney’s treatment of P. L. Travers seems to his critics. Because Walt loved the character. His intent never was to destroy Mary Poppins but to give her life. He wasn’t malicious or greedy about it. He didn’t settle for shoddy work while making the film. He earnestly sought out Travers’s blessing, though he never got it. Today, after 50 years to mull it over, we know the Disney film did exactly what Walt promised it would do. It touched millions of hearts, children and adults alike, and continues to endure. In spite of the conflict behind the scenes, the Disney film is a work of art. That is the happy ending to this story.

Be that as it may, to the critics, Saving Mr. Banks is now salt in the wound, confirming their beliefs and, to add insult to injury, allegedly misrepresenting the real P. L. Travers to boot. I can almost hear P. L. Travers herself protesting the movie. So the question now is, Is Saving Mr. Banks nothing more than an elaborate attempt to repair Disney’s reputation or is it telling the truth?

I won’t argue that there are probably some people who may think of P. L. Travers differently than what is portrayed in the film. But as much as I sympathize with P. L. Travers and her defenders, I still believe critics should not be so fast to brand Saving Mr. Banks as an outright lie. Much like how Walt Disney was just trying to honor Mary Poppins the only way he knew how, I think all Saving Mr. Banks tries to do is honor P. L. Travers the best way it can. I believe the filmmakers did the best they could with the information they had. And it’s not like Saving Mr. Banks goes out of its way to make P. L. Travers the bad guy or to pigeonhole her into a stereotype. If you think so, then you’re not giving the script and Emma Thompson’s performance enough credit. On the contrary, it’s a respectable attempt to give P. L. Travers depth. In fact, Saving Mr. Banks makes me sympathize more than ever before with Travers’s side of the struggle.

Maybe this portrayal doesn’t seem like the real P. L. Travers to absolutely everyone, but you know what? Everyone is somebody different to every person they meet. Think about how differently you may come across to your family or friends versus your co-workers, or any other social circle, the complexity of individual relationships, or even how you think of yourself versus what others see in you. Accordingly, this is the P. L. Travers that the Disney company knew and the most honest expression of what they understand about her. I can trust Saving Mr. Banks because it’s an honest opinion from the perspective of the studio itself. (For example click here to see what songwriter Richard Sherman had to say about Travers.) Still a risky move, I grant you, with the old wounds the film inevitably opens up, but a well intentioned one. In the end, this whole debate over the truthfulness of Saving Mr. Banks is a reflection of the same fight that went on over Mary Poppins half a century ago. Strange how history is repeating itself.

To echo a comment from Saving Mr. Banks, I’ll probably give myself an ulcer trying to figure this out. As with virtually all endless arguments, it persists because both sides have a point. I think we can all agree, if anything, that P. L. Travers was a complicated human being (aren’t we all?), and that her relationship with Walt Disney was complex. Saving Mr. Banks is simply a beautiful attempt to try and make sense of it all, and that’s why, all things considered, I love this movie.

2 thoughts on “Saving Mary Poppins

  1. How do you know that “MARY POPPINS” would have been an awesome family drama? Would Travers had created a main narrative for her version of the story? I hope so.

    For a movie that is accused of trashing Travers, it went through a great deal to reveal the pain she had experienced during her childhood. What does that really say?

  2. I don’t think Saving Mr. Banks trashes P.L. Travers (or Disney or Mary Poppins) at all. Sorry if you got that impression, but that’s not what I meant.

    No one knows what Travers’s version would have been like because we didn’t get to see it. However, my point was that BOTH Travers and Disney were great storytellers who each had good ideas for the film. I think either film version had the potential to be great–it just so happens that Disney’s is the one that made it to the screen.

    As I mentioned, I think Saving Mr. Banks does a wonderful job portraying P.L. Travers with humanity and sympathy. I think the film’s intention is to honor her, not distort her. You’re right–the movie does examine Travers’s childhood in depth, and I think they did an admirable job. And I love Disney, Mary Poppins, and Saving Mr. Banks. I was only musing about what was (and still is) a very complicated relationship between Travers and Disney, in an attempt to understand both sides of the story. That’s all.

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