Last night we hunkered down at the end of yet another snowy day in this oddly wintery winter to watch the recent Disney film Saving Mr. Banks. The movie tells the story of Walt Disney’s attempt to convince P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins stories, to sell the character’s rights to Disney for a movie production. The Travers character is portrayed by Emma Thompson as a prickly and proper Englishwoman with very definite ideas about how her beloved creation should be handled for the big screen. Walt Disney is played by the great Tom Hanks (how is it possible the same actor in this film also starred as Captain Phillips?!) as a sort of fatherly business man with a gift for bringing the magic of imagination into the real world.
The movie is centered around the contest of wills between the two lead characters in the present set against flashbacks to P.L. Travers’ childhood. She grew up in a troubled home with a father she adored who happened to be an underachieving alcoholic, dying when she was only 7 years old. The sense in the film is that the struggling father of the Banks family in Mary Poppins is a representation of Travers’ real father, and her attempt, through her writing, to come to terms with the man who cultivated her gift of imagination but at the same time betrayed and disappointed her.
In the course of the movie P.L. Travers is slowly but inevitably won over by Disney’s magic and the music of the creative team that is working on writing the film. In the last scene she sits in the theater watching the film’s premiere, weeping in a cathartic moment that seems to indicate she has finally been able to lay to rest the demons of her childhood and come to terms with who her father was, and who he was not. The movie is touching, albeit a bit syrupy in typical Disney style. Sentimentalists will probably enjoy it, while the realists among us, perhaps not so much.
Of course what we do these days after watching such a film is to immediately google it to find out how much of the storyline is true. The answer in this case is yes and no. The core of the story – that Travers had a troubled childhood, an alcoholic father, and that Disney worked for years to get her to sell the rights to Mary Poppins, is all factual. So is the portrayal of P.L. Travers as difficult and demanding in terms of how her Mary Poppins character could and should be handled for the big screen. What does not seem to be true, however, is the transformation, the softening, of Travers and her personality that is the emotional core of the movie. In reality she fought with Disney about the film from beginning to end, and he rebuffed her because of the contract that had been signed. By all reports she hated the movie when she saw it, never watched it again, and was disappointed to say the least that her original story, with its harder edges and struggling characters, had been given the ‘Disney treatment’ and a happy ending.
There is an old idea that poetry should come from grief, and not grievances. Real life is messy, with alcoholic fathers and disappointing mothers, with childhood trauma that leaves a lasting impact, with hard nosed business decisions trumping an artist’s right to control her own creation. And yet from that – and perhaps only from that – does the human spirit make great art. Dancing penguins and a flying nanny, music that lifts the soul, a struggling family saved by a strong spirited woman who comes in at precisely the right moment, carried on the ‘winds in the east, mist blowing in.’