Title: Saving Mr. Banks
Written By: Kelly and Sue Smith Marcel
Publication Info: Walt Disney Pictures 2013
Saving Mister Banks is a Walt Disney Film about Walt Disney, so if you are expecting a hard-hitting expose, this is not it. It makes Walt look as saintly as possible without actually putting a halo on him. But it’s also a marvelous showcase for perfectly cast actors in the prime of their careers, and a thoughtful look at the roles fiction can play in revealing and healing our emotional wounds.
The first part of this review is a basic movie review but eventually I’ll let you know that there are mild spoilers ahead, and I’m going to be talking less about the movie than about the importance of happy endings and some alternate ways of viewing the movie, which has attracted quite a bit of controversy. So if you are super spoiler-phobic just skip the last part – I’ll let you know when!
Let’s start with the cast, because this movie is all about the acting. There’s some lovely cinematography, but basically this entire movie is just an excuse for a whole lot of actors to strut their stuff – which they do. I like to picture copies of the script being wrapped up in bows and presented to the actors individually, as gifts.
“Here Emma Thompson, here’s a chance to be sharp and smart and kind of mean while also being vulnerable and secretly kind!
Your Oscar nomination is in the mail!”
Honestly, it’s a thrill just to sit back and let these people do their thing. Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers is all sharp, brittle edges, cutting her way through life. Tom Hank’s Walt Disney is all round and gentle, but of course you don’t become Walt Disney without being pretty persistent.
One of the nicest things about this movie is that most of the actors are middle aged or older, and we’ve been seeing them on screen since they were in their twenties. In a culture that worships youth, it’s fascinating to see how much more interesting it is to watch Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson now than in their youth. They were always great, but now the actors bring life experience and maturity to their parts. Most of the attention goes to the two leads, Hanks and Thompson (honestly, just hand her the Oscar now to save time, OK?), but everyone is sublimely cast and they elevate the material from something that is frankly fairly soppy to something that is delightful and sometimes harrowing to watch. Look at Ruth Wilson (Travers’ mother), who brings as much depth to her character as though the whole movie was about her, even though she’s only given something like five lines. Look how Rachel Griffiths (The Aunt) drops her carpetbag onto the floor (here is a pic -warning, enormous jpg), and check out the unexpected steely look in Paul Giamatti’s eye when he forbids worrying about tomorrow (he plays Travers’ driver).
These people Know How It Is Done.
This is a sweet movie, the kind you can take your Grandma to, although it would bore children to tears. But it has real weight to it, and deep emotional impact, because it is about how we use fiction to reveal and heal our emotional scars. There’s no romance in this film, but I think romance fans might like it very much, because of this message. The movie has an A plot (Walt Disney tries to convince P.L. Travers to give him the rights to make Mary Poppins into a movie) and a B plot (flashbacks about Traver’s childhood with a charming but deeply self-destructive alcoholic father). In the A plot, Travers fights against making Mary Poppins a cheerful character. She particularly objects to the “spoonful of sugar” because Mary Poppins does not sugar coat things for children. She trains them to face the hard world that lies ahead. She also objects to the fact that the children’s fictional father, Mr. Banks, is portrayed so unsympathetically, and she maintains that Mary Poppins does NOT appear at Cherry Tree Lane to save the children.
So, Disney has to figure out who Mary Poppins does come to save, hence the B plot. It’s easy for us to figure out because it’s in the title of the movie, but Disney is at a loss until he uncovers a little bit about Travers’ past life. This leads to an exchange of dialogue that is totally fictional but deeply moving. If you want the details to remain suspenseful, end your reading here! Spoilers ahead!
In a beautiful but entirely fictional scene, Disney tells Travers about his own difficult childhood:
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 a past?
Although Travers has created a magical world of imagination, it represents gritty reality to her. Mary Poppins shows the children hard truths, and fiction that reveals painful truths is important. But Disney sees another role for fiction – that we can use fiction to write the endings that we wish our stories had, and thus heal our griefs.
There are many reasons why people love romance as a genre, and there are many reasons why I love it. One of my favorite things about romance is the promise that things will be OK. In real life, even though my life is one of great happiness, I worry all the time, about everything from asteroids (Collisions!) to zebras (Endangered!). Above all I worry about people who are suffering who I can’t save, and I grieve for people who I have lost. So you can imagine my tearful response when, at the premiere of Mary Poppins, when Travers weeps because Mr. Banks has been fired, Disney leans over to her and whispers, “It’s all right, Mrs. Travers. It’s alright. Mr. Banks is going to be all right. I promise.”
First of all, in terms of the movie itself, it’s a powerful moment, because P.L. Travers’ father, the model for Mr. Banks, was not alright. Not even her own Mary Poppins, a seemingly invincible aunt, could save him. And although in real life Travers was never happy with the film, this scene in Saving Mister Banks is cathartic for the character and for the audience.
From the standpoint of someone like me who likes romance, this moment was touching and affirming. We all know that things in life can be hard. Even happy endings have tough parts. But when you pick up a romance book, it says, “It’s alright…I promise”. And that’s not trite or delusional. It’s powerful and healing and freeing. It’s a way of nurturing hope and it gives us something good to imagine and to aspire to.
I read a quote a few months ago and now I can’t find it anywhere. If anyone can track it down, please let me know so I can give the proper credit. Basically, it says that the most radical thing a writer can do to advance gay rights is to write happy endings for gay couples. I would argue that this is also true for women and for other disenfranchised groups. We need stories that reveal the hardships we have faced historically and that we continue to face today. We need to be able to clearly see our past and our present. But we also need hope and optimism. If all of the stories end in doom, then we start to feel, well…doomed. All of us need happy endings, not just those who have been historically disenfranchised, but I believe that the idea that you can and should aspire to happiness, and that it may actually be within your grasp, is a radical political concept to those populations who have always been instructed to settle.
What I hadn’t thought of before Saving Mister Banks is that in writing happy endings we can also rewrite our own stories. I also had a charming alcoholic father who died early, and it was sometime during Plot B as I was sitting in the movie theater wallowing in PTSD, that I thought, “This ‘Daddy issues’ thing I have is exhausting. Will I never be able to sit through a movie without discovering that it is accidentally about Dads and thereby becoming a basket case?”
Sure enough, a few scenes later, there was Tom Hanks offering me an out. My sad story about my alcoholic father who died is an important one and it’s one that deserves to be shared – if you live, or have lived, with an addict, you have suffered, and you are not alone (I encourage you to seek support – this link should take you to Al-Anon's website where you can find resources and a list of support group meetings). But sometimes I forget that the story of how I loved and lost my father to alcoholism isn’t my WHOLE story. It isn’t even my Dad’s whole story. To say that maybe I can start telling different stories about my childhood isn’t to say that I should deny the impact of that loss, or that I should “snap out of” my grief. It’s to say that maybe it’s OK to crack a window open and let in some light.
What Disney is saying to Travers is that we can use fiction not only to reveal our reality but to shape it. There are a lot of things going on in this movie but for me, that aspect was the most interesting, and that aspect is why I think some of you would enjoy the film so much. That, and the fact that Emma Thompson plays the smartest, and bitchiest, smart bitch of all time!
Now, I'm grading the movie based on my experience of the movie, not the politics around the movie. I found the movie, set aside from any non-fiction background, to be interesting and touching and powerful to watch – so an 'A'. But boy howdy are there some interesting controversies surrounding the film. See, in the movie, Emma Thompson weeps with joy because she loves the film version of Mary Poppins so very much and the magic of Disney has healed her emotional wounds. But alas, in real life, P.L. Travers wept at the premier because she hated it. Oh, she liked the money, and she got a heap of it, but she still hated the movie. While the movie presents the making of the film Mary Poppins as sort of an ultimate tribute to fan fiction (Disney alludes to how much he loves the book), in real life there was more corporate juggernaughting going on and Travers was bitter forever.
Back in 2005, The New Yorker published a great article about the life of P.L. Travers and her views on the movie. Interestingly, although it points out that Travers never did like the movie, she also had rewritten her own story in the pages of Mary Poppins, a book in which the family is not broken as it is in the beginning of the film. If you want to read the article online, here it is! There's also some fun fact-checking at orlandoweekly.com.
There's a passionate article on the sexist elements of the movie at laweekly. Based on other things I've read about P.L. Travers, this article is off-base on some of its facts, but its case is still valid- it's disturbing that in a male dominated industry, we root against woman who is denied control over her work. The Diamondback has a good critique as well, and focuses more on the sexism presented in the actual movie than in the distortion of Traver's real life (Travers needs Disney to swoop in and save her from her emotional problems in the film, which hardly does justice to any woman, fictional or actual).
I think the most interesting movies are ones that can be viewed in many different ways. Here's a few of the ways in which I've thought about the movie:
- An enjoyable, entertaining film with tour de force performances by some of the best actors around today
- A love story to fan fiction
- A horrifying look at corporate bullying
- A feminist saga in which a woman who has no weapons but her wits refuses to be coerced into relinquishing control of her work although she is, eventually, willing to share it voluntarily
- A sexist saga which is yet another example of a historical woman being diminished in service to a man's success
- A movie about the importance of happy endings in healing old wounds and helping people reach better lives
I think the most interesting thing about the movie is that all of these ways of looking at it are valid even though some of them are completely contradictory. I can't wait for comments!
Have you seen Saving Mr. Banks? What did you think?