Saving Mr. Banks
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley
I wasn’t sure what to expect walking into this movie. Part of me wondered how a telling of how Walt Disney gained the rights to P.L. Travers’ character Mary Poppins could ever be interesting. Part of me worried about the film being little more than propaganda for Disney whose image is not always positive. What I came away with, however, was a compelling film about the failures of good people and the scars they leave, as well as a lesson about the power of narrative to rewrite our world. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite films from 2013.
The film interweaves the 1962 negotiations between Disney (Tom Hanks) and Travers (Emma Thompson) with a retelling of Travers’ experience of her days as a child in the Australian frontier. We meet her as a child, then known as Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), completely taken with her whimsical and adoring father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell). The dreamy, imaginative quality of Goff’s interactions with his three daughters, especially Ginty, is juxtaposed to the 60 year old Travers’ almost humorless demeanor toward the world. Right away we are forced to ponder, how did a child raised on imagination and whimsy grow to an adult so utterly devoid of these qualities?
But wait, this is P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins. How on Earth could we accuse her of lacking whimsy? This is precisely the conundrum set out before Disney himself. Travers is presented as a problem to solve, and since we know the outcome, it’s safe to say that the lovable creator of Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom is just the person to solve it.
Immediately I was concerned about the direction the film was taking. Disney films have a reputation of not being especially kind to women, especially older women. Here we have two men introduced as de facto heroes of childhood, Goff and Disney, and an older woman who is as austere as any Princess’s step-mother. I worried the film was embodying all of the worst feminist criticisms of Disney films.
Then the story began to shift. We begin to learn that Goff’s imaginative play comes with a price. He is an alcoholic. The film, which leaves the older Travers as a conundrum, takes us on our journey through Ginty’s eyes. We begin by adoring Goff only to see little cracks in the exterior become larger and larger throughout the film. With each revealed shortcoming of Goff’s our heart breaks a little more, both for him and for the daughter he adored.
And in the end, when a sick and dying Goff, strung out from going dry, rejects Ginty’s poem by saying, “It’s not exactly Yeats, is it?” we are crushed along with Ginty. More than that, we feel the pain and guilt of Travers as she remembers responding to that rejection by giving her father the one thing she knows he loves, a hidden bottle of whiskey.
This is the hidden story behind Mary Poppins: A father who loved his children, but was incapable of loving himself. We come to understand that Mary Poppins is imagined in order to do what neither Goff nor Ginty could do, make everyone whole by saving a father who can’t save himself. P.L. Travers is so protective of Mary Poppins because Mary Poppins is Travers’ chance to save her father, in fiction if not in reality.
Disney’s journey through the film mirrors that of Travers. Of course, they begin in completely opposite places, but as the film progresses and Disney mulls and ponders how exactly to convince Travers to sign away the rights to the character, we begin to see behind his façade. The most telling moment is when Travers barges into Disney’s office to find him hurriedly snuffing out a cigarette. Disney says, “I don’t like anyone to see me smoke. I don’t want to encourage the bad habit in others.”
Ultimately, of course, Disney solves the riddle by revealing the man behind the persona. We are allowed to see behind the face of the “happiest place on earth,” as he shares the scars left by his own abusive father, a man he assures us that he loved and respected even though he wishes to rewrite his childhood memories.
The irony then, is that the Disney legacy which is so often criticized (and rightly so) for its treatment or neglect of mothers, is inspired by an abusive father. But of course this makes sense, Disney didn’t need a fictional mother. Disney explains in the film’s climactic scene that our imagination and creativity is what saves us from the ghosts of the past. That he understands that it is the father who Mary Poppins is intended to save, and that he promises that in his film, Mr. Banks will be saved, that people will love him the way she loved her father.
I’m not sure that the film will exactly redeem Disney in the eyes of his detractors, and I’m not sure that it should. That being said, however, it is incredibly well done in how it takes its audience on the emotional ride of Travers through the eyes of Ginty. The acting is wonderful, especially Colin Farrell who can play charming and haunted better than anyone else in cinema right now. Also worth mentioning is Paul Giamatti, who as Mrs. Travers’ driver in L.A., turns out to be the only American she admits to liking.
Giamatti’s character is interesting because, as the father of a child with disabilities, he is obviously caring and loving, lacking the flaws, as it were, of both Goff and Disney’s father. And yet, he needs Travers to tell him that his daughter, whom he loves, is capable of doing anything despite her disability. In a tale about fathers and the scars they leave on their children how does he fit in?
Ultimately, I see this film as inverting the parent-child narrative. The vulnerability of children is precisely that they trust and love unconditionally, and in a world where we fear for their safety, we forget that trust and love are virtues and not a vices. Too often we are invested in a cultural narrative wherein our children are tested against adult expectations, wherein our children are made to prove themselves to us. Perhaps, however, we as parents should worry more about proving ourselves to our children.
The stories that people like Disney and Travers share with the world are imaginative tellings of the hopes and fears of childhood and serve as a kind of reminder to parents. Giamatti’s character needs Travers to tell him how to treat his daughter just as we all need Mary Poppins to tell us what we readily knew as children, flying kites is a better way to spend your time than working yourself to death. Children, in other words, don’t need childish stories, we do. Without them we are lost.