Did you know the 50th anniversary of the Disney classic “Mary Poppins” is rapidly approaching? The Disney corporation certainly does. Thus we have “Saving Mr. Banks,” a heavily fictionalized – and, yes, Disneyfied – version of the film’s production, and the clashes between Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks as a grandfatherly, genial weaver of dreams) and author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), who is portrayed as an unreasonably stubborn, uptight scold who is finally won over by Disney magic, once Uncle Walt realizes that her great work is a fantasy reflection of her heartbreaking childhood.
It’s Disneyfication as psychoanalysis, with a heartwarming ending that is so entirely false that it’s a wonder Zombie Mrs. Travers hasn’t risen from the grave and laid waste to Disneyland. She most certainly was not melted into a puddle of goo by Walt’s pixie dust. Did you enjoy all the sequels Disney made to their landmark blockbuster Oscar-winning film, based on the many other books Travers wrote about Mary Poppins? What’s that, you say? There weren’t any movie sequels? Why do you suppose that is?
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a perfectly pleasant movie, with the usual good performances from Hanks, Thompson, and Paul Giamatti as a lovable chauffeur, but there’s something kind of… monstrous about how completely it defeats the real P.L. Travers in the name of building Disney mythology. If she were alive, she would be livid. She’d probably file a lawsuit. And Emma Thompson, who clearly put a lot of work into inhabiting the role and bringing her to life, probably knows it, which means she should feel a certain degree of guilt about what she’s participated in here.
This movie is actually a form of history revisionism, not far in spirit from what Disney did with animated films such as “Pocahontas.” A modern viewpoint is dispatched into this virtual-reality reconstruction of real people and events, establishing a “Matrix”-like New Order by taking Walt Disney’s side almost completely, and viewing Travers the way most modern teens and twentysomethings would. What the heck is her problem with animated penguins? She wanted Mary Poppins to be dour? She didn’t like Dick van Dyke? Clearly the woman was a few fries short of a Happy Meal, so we’ll send Agent Smith (disguised as Walt Disney) to root around inside her Happy Meal and synchronize her with the future. (Which is not to say that Travers didn’t have her eccentricities, of course, but this cheery, whimsical revisionist history is fairly brutal in the way it uses Walt as the avatar of the future and makes her spill the beans about everything she’d be expected to put on her Facebook page, if she’d been born a century later.)
It is genuinely fascinating to look back at an era when an author could play as hard to get as Travers did – for twenty years! – and exercise the level of creative control she held over the final production. The machinery of movie studio adaptations has been fine-tuned by lawyers and agents since then. I’m not even sure J.K. Rowling could get away with putting a studio through the sort of hell Travers inflicted on Disney, or that she’d want to.
The pre-hippie-freakout Sixties have become a time of great interest for modern audiences, as can be seen from the popularity of the television show “Mad Men.” The era was familiar in so many ways, but utterly alien in others. The best scenes in “Saving Mr. Banks” use the perspective of the future to play a few merry little inside jokes, such as the songwriters enduring a tirade from Travers about the evils of made-up words, exchanging horrified glances, and slipping the sheet music for “Supercallifragialisticexpialidocious” to the bottom of the pile. A late scene in Walt’s office brings chuckles from the audience because a huge map of Florida is prominently displayed in the background.
And as the poster for “Saving Mr. Banks” observes, with Walt and Mrs. Travers casting immense shadows of Mickey Mouse and Mary Poppins, there’s something intriguing about watching the interplay between people who don’t quite realize how much history they’re making, or how long their work will be remembered. Walt is right about that, when he persuades the cranky author to loosen up by assuring her that their collaboration will make her work, and her long-lost father, immortal.
Hollywood is almost always wrong when it assumes the public wants to hear stories about either the magic of film-making, or the seedy money-grubbing egotistical underbelly of Tinseltown. Movies about the magic of movies don’t usually go over as well as the studio hopes. Perhaps “Saving Mr. Banks” will be an exception, because Walt Disney is already a mythological figure, the movie is light and breezy until it drops the emotional hammer you can see coming from minute one, and it’s just plain fun watching a very proper Englishwoman terrorize a movie studio. But it’s a final, bitter irony for P.L. Travers that the studio she had so many misgivings about doing business with has now appropriated not just her fictional masterpiece, but her personal history as well, introducing her to a new audience of young people as an eccentric who was smart, strong-willed, quirky, filled with hidden sadness, and wrong.