WARNING: What I’m about to say may confuse and shock you. Upon consuming this information, people usually react like THIS, and question if I’m “against joy” and if I “like happiness.” If you possess a weak constitution (meaning biting honesty and cynicism cause you great displeasure and disgust) you should probably stop reading right now.
Still with me? Wow. Great. You’re my kind. Welcome. Here it goes:
I do not like fairytales or theme parks.
As a kid I was all about Disney. I went to Disney World and wished my parents would take me to Disneyland. I watched Annie an inordinate amount of times and still remember the words to all the songs. On my 12th birthday, I did the very uncool thing of having my party at the movies to see Aladdin. As the years progressed, however, so too did my thinking around wishing upon a star, pixie dust, and happy endings. What was magical to me as a kid just seemed like baloney to me as an adult. I became drawn to what was “real.” Pain is real. Disappointment is real. Those things that lie behind the facade are real. Happiness is real, too, but what is there to say about it? It’s uninspired. It’s a great feeling if you can get it, but nothing to write about.
It’s this line of thinking that led me to place fairytales under the file: Lies We Have to Unlearn. It was all just manufactured happiness built to sell you as a lifelong customer.
So imagine my surprise when I saw Saving Mr. Banks and felt inspired, moved … dare I say happy? It has been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that doesn’t lend itself to thrilling previews or funny sound bites, but rather a richness that only the full story can provide.
Saving Mr. Banks is based on the true story of Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) and his pursuit of Mary Poppins writer P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson). Disney desperately wanted Travers to sign over the film rights to her beloved characters, and she desperately did not want him to turn her “family” into cartoons.
“I know what he’s going to do to her. She’ll be cavorting, and twinkling.”
Disney tried for 20+ years before succeeding, and this is where the story begins. Travers arrives at the Disney headquarters in Burbank, CA ready to protect her characters, and herself. Rather than scoff at Thompson’s curmudgeonly behavior — nitpicking everyone from her driver to iconic songwriting duo the Sherman Brothers (!) — I felt as if she were my soul mate.
At some point or another in our lives, we develop an unnatural bond with a character, a band, a god, something that we’ve created merely by projecting our own needs upon it. And we defend it/them ferociously. Life disappoints, so we try to find something to believe in that makes it all more tolerable. For Disney, that meant creating stories that would bring joy to children and lure adults away from their worries. For Travers, it meant holding onto every sharp pain as if it would invert to create a suit of armor against future blows. She was appalled by Disney’s grandiosity and insistence on happy endings.
“It seems enormously patronizing to me. The very sort of annoying tune you would have playing in your themed park I daresay. All giddy and carefree, encouraging children to face the world unarmed. All they need is a spoon and some sugar and a brain full of fluff and they’re equipped with life’s tools.”
While Travers insisted that life was a thing to be endured and hardened against, Disney insisted that anyone could change their narrative, dull the edges of painful memories to create a life worth celebrating.
“Now, I don’t tell you all this to make you sad Mrs. Travers, I don’t. 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?”
What you’ll see in Saving Mr. Banks is the transformation of a young, hopeful Travers into a woman wizened by small tragedies who meets her match in Disney. You’ll witness the evolution of two people hellbent on protecting what’s real to them. You may just see yourself and question how you’ve chosen to look at your own story.
There’s a line in Mary Poppins where she explains to the kids that their father isn’t a bad man who doesn’t love them, he was just a man consumed by the cares of the world.
“Sometimes a person we love, through no fault of his own, can’t see past the end of his nose.”
Saving Mr. Banks spoke to the hopeful kid in me because it addressed the adult I have become. In enjoying this film, something happened — you could call it magic — and this fairytale business made sense to me, just as much sense as everything else in life I’ve come to know as true. We all do something to help the medicine go down.
“George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
I’ve read some negative reviews of the film, how ‘Disneyfied’ it is, how it glosses over the real P.L. Travers’ story — a bisexual, sexually liberated, adoptive mother, insert more “cool” adjectives here and you get the idea. And I disagree wholeheartedly. Passionately. This film does a fantastic job achieving its mission — not to be a biopic of P.L. Travers or Walt Disney, or even the Sherman Brothers — but to show us how we all can be receptive to magic if we just find a reason to believe.