My family moved to Southern California when I was eight. This meant exposure to new hazards; the high traffic of a city, the threat of earth quakes, and (worst of all) visitors. I used to hate it when people would come to visit us, because that always meant a trip to Disneyland. I used to beg my father to let me stay home, and the answer was usually ‘no’. I would explain to the guests that Knots Berry Farm was way better or that a trip to Universal Studios might be more fun. But no! They always wanted to go to Disneyland. It just went without saying that a trip out our way included a visit to Disneyland.
I hated Disneyland!
I didn’t have the word for it at the time, but what bothered me about Disney was the condescension. Disney wasn’t really made for kids; I understood that much. Disney was an elaborate fantasy for adults, a fantasy in which innocent children could be made happy with an over-abundance of simplicity, cuteness, and a spoon full of sugar. It is a fantasy in which children sit without guile or guilt and lap up harmless happiness without a care in the world. The obvious counterpart to Disney seemed to be Loony-Tunes where I could watch Bugz Bunny drive someone nuts or contemplate the never-ending battle between a coyote and a fast running bird. Knots Berry Farm had rides, real rides, and my comic books had gun-fights and explosions. But Disney? At least in its 1970s version, Disney seemed to think a smiling mouse was all I wanted in the world.
…and it just wasn’t.
I couldn’t help noticing that an awful lot of the tall people I knew seemed to think that damned mouse would make me happy, or at least they wanted to think that. And I couldn’t help thinking they expected me to smile when I saw him. The fantasy Disney sells has never been the mouse, the duck, or even the goofy dog. It has always been the smile of children, children who want nothing more than mice, and ducks and cute dogs. But I was never that innocent, and neither were my classmates at school. I didn’t just resent the whole charade, I regarded it as a threat of sorts, an attack on something deep inside me, something I didn’t want to give up. So, a visit to Disneyland wasn’t just boring, it was an assault on every fiber of my being.
I really hated that damned mouse!
So, perhaps you can understand the joy with which I beheld the entrance of P.L. Travers onto the scene in Saving Mr. Banks. She was rude, she was mean, and she was arrogant. Watching the opening scenes of this film was for me a bit like watching Godzilla cut loose in Tokyo and cheering him on the whole time. …or her on, as the case may be.
The premise for this film is well known. It takes its inspiration from Walt Disney’s efforts to persuade P.L. Travers, the author behind Mary Poppins, to grant him the rights to make a movie out of her work. To say that Travers was not so keen to see her darker, edgier character made into Disney pap would be something of an understatement. And of course the clash of creative visions here makes for an interesting story-line, a chance to watch two great artists battle over the shape of a creation yet to come.
Some might consider this movie a comedy. I consider it a tragedy, but for now I am getting ahead of myself. The P.L. Travers of Saving Mr. Banks is a terribly difficult woman. She is rude; she is unreasonable, and she is terribly British. …I know, she’s supposed to be an Aussie, but she seems to have gone full-limey well before the opening scenes of this movie begin to unfold. We will of course come to like her, but only after we have first come to regard her as something of a problem.And she is a problem, of course, because if she wins, then Mary Poppins never makes its way onto the screen. We never get that spoon full of sugar, dance with penguins, or sing supercali-whatever. For those of us who enjoyed Mary Poppins (and yes, I did) the prospect of a win for Ms. Travers is a counter-factual horror-story, a genuine case of a woman whose will deprives us of something we value.
Which makes her the perfect villain!
Unfortunately, this power of this great villain is undercut from the beginning. It is her publicist who introduces Ms. Travers to us, and through him we first come to realize just how unreasonable she can be. As we meet her, the woman is broke, and yet she will not do the one thing that can save her from economic misfortune. She will not sell the movie rights of her work to Disney. It’s a condescending twist, enabling us to see in Ms. Banks an irrational woman bent on her own self-destruction. What will follow is of course a story of more reasonable people saving her from herself, and in the process giving the world the joy that we have all come to know as Mary Poppins. And of course this movie takes great pains to help us understand this poor, troubled woman, giving us flashbacks aplenty from her difficult childhood in the hopes that we will understand why she grew up to be such an odd and unreasonable person. It is a terribly sympathetic vision, but is also a disrespectful vision, one which asks us to excuse her eccentricities when we should be celebrating them.
More to the point, the movie never really confronts us with the possibility that P.L. Travers may have been right about her own character, that Mary Poppins may have been more interesting, more challenging, and more enriching without the spoonful of sugar that Disney poured into it. It is Travers’ vision which the movie problematizes, so to speak, and so it is her vision which will break in the end.
To be sure, Travers is set free for a time in this film, allowed to be herself, and that is the moment when I love her, when she is terrible. Addressed on a first name basis by everyone from her driver to Walt Disney himself, Travers balks at the effrontery, and I can’t help but think she is right. Who the Hell are these people to get so familiar so quickly? I smile as she rejects the table of sweets brought to her on the first day, all bundled in Disney iconography. I cheer as she proclaims that there will be no music and no animation in the film, and for just a moment I could almost hope she will win that battle. I stand with Travers as she hands out a harsh sermon on the difference between Dick Van Dyke and the true acting greats of her era. And I could not be more on Travers’ side when she first enters a hotel room to find it filled with stuffed Disney toys. There is a detail here that I don’t wish to spoil, but what she does with that damned mouse is perfect in my opinion, and what she says to him even more so.
It’s fricking perfect!
But of course, this will ultimately, become a sad tale of seduction, and the monstrous Travers who threatens all our childhood happiness will be tamed in good time. We all know that Mary Poppins was made into a movie, and we all know that Dick van Dyke appeared in it. We also know that it contained some very catchy songs, and that it even had some clever animation. We know the movie was just the sort of bright-smiling Disney production that Travers spends her opening scenes railing against.
Some of us even know that P.L. Travers was never quite happy with the final product, but of course that is not the story that Saving Ms. Banks chooses to tell us. In this film, she is slowly convinced by Disney, and I want to cry. From the very first sign of weakness, a tapping toe, to the frightening moment when Travers comes to love her stuffed Mouse, I am horrified. This is supposed to be a heart-warming story in which a cranky eccentric is shown her own human side, and we are supposed to love her more for it. But for me, this is a terrible tale of an artist broken on a wheel of insipid sweetness. Trust me, Walt tells Travers, and we are supposed to hope that she does. I could almost pray that she doesn’t.
The real P.L. Travers did cry at the premier of Mary Poppins, but not because she found the film so moving. She cried because she hated it. This film isn’t merely taking liberties with the facts, it is turning the truth of the central character on its head, transforming her outrage into a warm and fuzzy tale of acceptance. Watching Travers vanquished once again in this new film, I can’t help but feel that same sense of nausea that Disney used to bring me as a child.
That damned mouse took something important from the real P.L. Travers, and in this story, he is taking it from her again.
…and now he wants her to smile about it.