(Warning: contains spoilers.)
I confess: I love the Disney classic, Mary Poppins. When my children were small, we watched it multiple times, and probably know most of the soundtrack by heart. I once even fashioned a makeshift miniature chimney sweep brush so my son could Step in Time.
As an academic training family therapists, though, I would sometimes watch the movie with another part of my brain: surely there was some deep psychological backstory to the tale of an emotionally distant father and a family that had to be rescued by an emotionally distant but magical nanny.
Saving Mr. Banks provides that backstory: part fact, part fiction, all Disney.
Emma Thompson is practically perfect as the prickly and austere P. L. Travers, who insists on being called “Mrs. Travers” against all attempts at first-name familiarity. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has been pursuing the rights to Mary Poppins for 20 years, having promised his daughter he would bring the character to the screen. Mrs. Travers has rebuffed him repeatedly, disliking everything Disney stands for; only when she is facing financial ruin does she finally agree to travel to America for a personal meeting.
Disney promises her creative veto rights; withholding her signature on the contract, she tests that promise at every turn. She insists that every conversation be recorded (stay through the credits to hear part of the actual recording), declares that Poppins would never sing, refuses to have any animation involved, scoffs at the idea of casting Dick Van Dyke — and inexplicably demands that the color red not appear anywhere in the film.
Flashbacks explain the fierceness with which she protects her creation. She was born in Australia as Helen Goff; her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), was a bank manager with a fanciful imagination and a fatal weakness for alcohol. Young “Ginty” (Annie Rose Buckley) loved her father, and suffered over his humiliating decline and death. She eventually became a flinty adult who insisted that children need hard doses of reality to steel them against the harshness of life. The characters of Mary Poppins were family to her, and her stories an attempt to rewrite her traumatic childhood.
Therein beats the metafictional heart of Saving Mr. Banks; it’s not merely a movie about making a movie, but a story about storytelling — about what kind of stories we must tell to master a troublesome past. Mrs. Travers loathes the sunny simplicity of the formulaic Disney ending, and will not have her story subjected to such treatment. But in a moment of vulnerability, Walt reveals his own rocky father-son relationship, and presses her to consider his narrative solution: why not save Mr. Banks through a happy ending that delights audiences and gives them hope?
Saving Mr. Banks is, after all, a Disney movie: the requisite happy ending is that Mrs. Travers relinquishes the rights, and the beloved classic is finally made. The film ends with Travers attending the Hollywood premiere, at first watching with skepticism and distaste, then overcome with emotion as she seems drawn in by Disney’s buoyant vision.
More than a spoonful of sugar has been sprinkled over the real story. The script deserves credit for having Walt muse over his own protectiveness of Mickey, for raising the issue of whether he is just another media mogul trying to build his empire, and for showing him selfishly trying to freeze Mrs. Travers out of the premiere. But overall, Walt is portrayed more as a Nice Guy than a powerful person who won’t take no for an answer. What we don’t see is that the real-life Travers remained resentful and eventually cut off all relations with the House of Mouse.
Ah, well. The fact remains that many of us have been culturally conditioned to the sugary endings of Disney movies. Saving Mr. Banks presents us with a choice: when it comes to telling the story of our lives, would we rather be the upbeat Disney, or the dour Mrs. Travers?
As a Christian, I can’t help but notice another alternative that runs quietly through the script. When Disney and Mrs. Travers first meet, he tells her that he has pursued the rights to Mary Poppins so doggedly because he made a promise to his daughter. Making and keeping promises: “That’s what fathers do,” he earnestly insists. With wounded sarcasm, Travers replies, “Is it?”
Well, yes, it is. And promise-keeping is the stuff of the grandest redemption narrative of all.