“Saving Mr Banks”: Disney cubed

As Victoria Coren noted in her TV documentary, Saving Mr Banks is a moving film, and is so even if one supposes that it Disneyfies the creation of Mary Poppins the film, and probably its real creator Walt Disney and possibly the books on which it is based, and maybe even the books’ author. Layer upon layer indeed.

I am out of step with most commentary on Saving Mr Banks. Let’s say that the crucial scene has P L (Pamela) Travers (the pen name of Helen Goff) crying at the first public screening of Disney’s Mary Poppins. The general view is that it depicts her broken up by the vulgarity of the film, with its sugary message, jaunty songs, and childish animations; she hates the way Disney has ignored her suggestions. But at the time, I felt that this scene shows the writer realising the force of the thesis which Walt Disney put to her in the latter stages of their negotiations. In short, I bought what I thought was Walt’s and the film’s take on the narrative.

Saving Mr Banks has it that Walt Disney loved the book because it resonated with his view of his relations with his own father, and which closely resembled – he believed or assumed or guessed – those of Helen Goff with Mr Goff, her father, and the drunk, romantic, failed banker. In this account, Walt Disney thought that Pamela/Helen, just like Walt himself, though somewhat failed by their fathers, actually grew to adulthood with a sense, however perverse, of guilt toward their parent. So, he argued to her, her book was really about how the Nanny, Mary Poppins, comes to save the father, rather than to save the mother or the children. This thesis seems to be supported by Mary Poppins, the film. (Unfortunately I have no idea whether the books would support this reading.) The thesis is of course made more comprehensible by what subsequent research has revealed of the Travers/Goff back-story. Frankly, I have no idea how much of the Australian setting to all this was known to Walt, though it is crucial to Saving Mr Banks.

Anyway, we have a remarkable film. The second main message of the film, I readily concede, is that Walt thinks all story-tellers tidy up real life so as to make it manageable. This is their role, and it gives a good deal of licence. It isn’t quite true that to Disneyfy a story is to rob it of toughness: the studio’s Beauty and the Beast is quite a tough piece of work. So, too, is Saving Mr Banks.

Actually, Mary Poppins, the film, is quite tough too. The children’s self-indulgent pursuance of their nanny’s romantic notions gets their father fired; the nanny tells them to man-up and suck-it up as a continuing riff: life is rough and she can’t fix it for them. Yes, Disney has the father reinstated when he liberates himself from being overly-conformist. But this really to say that he has to man-up and assert himself before life comes right for him.  (This is a sort of Ayn Rand message, isn’t it?)

I think it is probable that P L Travers was defiant in at least pretending to hate the film: she is left free to be pretty hornery. But we are brought to believe that she at least had some excuse to be weird and maybe not merely conflicted but quite two-faced about her responses. But I do concede that how much of a Disney epiphany she had, is entirely open to speculation.

What strikes me as undeniable is that Saving Mr Banks is quite a brave film. It is a pretty sharp examination – by the main “villain” – of the strengths and weaknesses of a major Western phenomenon: the rewriting of literary children’s fiction (oh, alright, fairy tales) in cartoon form. In P L Travers, the studio had a near-perfect critic, conflicted though she was. The most the Disney studio can claim is that people like their product and seem to be doing quite well on it. Their new film allows that a good, tough, sceptical, sharp woman thought they were trivialisers and it doesn’t rob her point of validity.

And of course, they know how to pull our strings – whatever else, Saving Mr Banks brings a tear to the eye.

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Publication date

03 January 2014


Mind & body; On movies