There is an old saying that says that life imitates art. At the best of times, we produce images we hope display an idealized glimpse of what we want life to be. Not to drift off into a synopsis of all of art history, but throughout human existence, in painting, sculpture, and other mediums, there was a tendency towards realism. But even when some pieces achieve near photographic quality, they are all done in order to say those proverbial thousand words with one picture. This can take on an even deeper meaning when it comes to literature, and some of the greatest books ever written contain personal meaning for their writers. That is certainly what Disney goes for with Saving Mr. Banks (2013), and despite its historical inaccuracies it depicts a stylized version of the past that is still pleasing. This is Disney, after all.
Pamela L. Travers (Emma Thompson), creator of Mary Poppins, has been bombarded by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for decades for the rights to the iconic English governess. It is 1961, but apparently he had been seeking her permission to adapt the character since the 1940s. The length of this pursuit is one clue to her indomitable character. It is not until Diarmuid Russell (Ronan Vibert), Travers’ manager, informs her that she is nearly penniless that she agrees (still reluctantly) to meet with Disney about their proposed movie. There are a number of stipulations Travers has regarding film content, things that shock the Disney people. The biggest issues were her desire for no music or animation. Revisiting this ongoing saga triggers in her a series of flashbacks to her childhood in Australia that inspired her stories. While Travers battles various artists and Disney himself, we are treated to scenes of her time growing up as Helen “Ginty” Goff (Annie Rose Buckley) with her father who she adored, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell). Goff is a bank manager, and he and Ginty are particularly close. There is one problem: Goff has a drinking problem. He also has an imagination that is a cause of consternation for Margaret (Ruth Wilson), his wife, and nearly gets him fired from his job one day as he is caught cavorting around his branch by the bank’s owner. When his alcoholism and his imagination are combined, as they are when asked to give a speech in front of the whole town, it turns out to be his downfall, literally and figuratively. Not only is he finally dismissed he he also learns that he has tuberculosis. This all proves too much for Margaret, and after Ginty rescues her from a suicide attempt, she calls upon her aunt, Hellen “Ellie” Morehead (Rachel Griffiths) to help around the house. Aunt Ellie is the person who gives rise to Mary Poppins. Goff finds his way into Travers writing too, not just as her pen name, but with the father figure of George Banks, and how Disney wants to depict him becomes a major sticking point. However, Disney’s dogged determination, as well as that of his staff working with Travers, begin to win her over. What nearly derails the whole project is when one of the song writers, Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman), off handedly remarks that there will be animation in the film. In a huff, she storms off Disney property and summarily returns to London. Shortly after she returns, Disney himself is knocking on her door. In this last ditch effort to get her approval, he convinces her of the care that she has for Mary Poppins. But what really clinches it for Travers is Disney pointing out that the story is really about her father, and he shares about his relationship with his dad, Elias. When Goff dies, the experience embitters Travers without her realizing it, but in Mary Poppins there is redemption. Though she is apparently not invited to the original premier at the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, she nonetheless shows up and we are left with her being in tears watching the film.
Travers crying at the end of Saving Mr. Banks says all you need to know about the historical inaccuracy of the film. In reality, Travers was, at best, ambivalent towards the 1964 classic. It is telling that this movie was made after her passing, though she did hang in there, living to the ripe old age of ninety-six and dying in 1996. Normally these problems would annoy me. It does not bother me as much in Saving Mr. Banks. One simple reason for my lack of concern is that they do not attempt what other movies rather embarrassingly resort to when dealing with the past, the often comical label “Based on true events,” or some derivation thereof. Film producers often slap this on at the beginning and then proceed to give us all manner of historical atrocities. Still, there is enough of a nugget of historical truth here to make the story compelling. Granted, this is a Disney-fied version of the quite contentious, acrimonious, and sometimes downright petty relationship between Travers and Disney as a whole. For example, so incensed was she by what she saw as the damage done to Mary Poppins by the Mouse that when it came to writing a sequel she contracted to not allow any American influence. With such knowledge in mind, it is hard to stomach the scenes where she hugs the giant stuff version of Mickey Mouse for comfort. And yet I like to think of this version of actual events to be cathartic and healing, if nothing else.
One of the things I take away from Saving Mr. Banks is the realization Travers must come to that her gifts are not entirely her own. Catholicism teaches that everything, particularly our abilities such as to be able to come up with great stories, are graces from God. They are given to us for a purpose, and they are all meant to bring Him glory. Thus when accolades are achieved like those that come to Travers, they glorify Him by reflection. What Travers struggles with is letting go. By human law and standards, her works of fiction are by rights hers to do with as she pleases. In fairness, there is nothing wrong with this concept. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with giving people what they want, and this was something of which Disney was a master while also staying true to his own vision. As he admits in the movie, he is somebody who is used to getting what he wants. For Travers, though, all she can see is an interloper seeking to mar what Mary Poppins means to her. It took her being opened up to what her character meant to others, including Disney, for her to finally give in. Choosing to submit is something God desires for us all, and doing so can truly open your eyes to not only the world around you, but to being able to see things as God sees them.
Despite the inaccuracies in Saving Mr. Banks, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Granted, it is a rose-tinted view of the past, but it is one that elevates rather than cheapens. However, if that it too much morality for you, keep in mind that for all Travers objections, she was extremely well-compensated. Royalties from Mary Poppins made it so that she was quite rich, and her estate when she died was worth over £2 million. By the way, the pound is more valuable than the dollar, even in 1996. Nonetheless, whatever way you look at it, Saving Mr. Banks is just a good movie.