I had been looking forward to seeing Saving Mr Banks ever since I saw Victoria Coren Mitchell’s recent documentary on P. L. Travers. The movie follows the historical artistic confrontation between this very English authoress, and the very American – or, just very Disney – Walt and his crew, in making a film of Mary Poppins. Mrs Travers, visiting Disney in Los Angeles, wrestles Mickey Mouse toys, as well as the big man himself, to overcome a weird combination of emotive personal crises and aesthetic disagreements in the struggle to make a satisfactory Disney film with her subtly dark and disturbing stories.
The problem, of course, is that, for Travers, ‘satisfactory Disney film’ is basically oxymoronic.The film depicts well Travers’s resistance to the invented moral sentimentalising in ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, and her hissy fits at Disney’s sly addition of cartoons in the ‘jolly holiday’ section of his Mary Poppins (I’d argue she was right: the dancing penguins are bloody awful!). As the documentary informed me, all of this discontent was actual, and in fact worse, in history: so much so, that Travers disliked the film to the end.
But aesthetics weren’t given as much emphasis as biography in the film. The movie was really about how Mary Poppins is a rewriting of Travers’s childhood. Mrs Travers, we are told to believe, based her novels so heavily on memories of her own upbringing that she cannot possibly relinquish the fact that Mr Banks was clean-shaven (like her own father). The coverage of the memories – her childhood as ‘Ginty’ in Australia – is largely well done, well-painted. If occasionally I had the urge to shove my fingers down my throat, the portrayal of the young girl was excellent: uncomplaining, uncharismatic, not winning, and therefore deserving of genuine, unpatronising sympathy.
I still find it impossible to stomach, though, the fiction that P. L. Travers became uncontrollably emotional in Los Angeles because she was flooded with childhood memories. I don’t have a brilliant connection to P. L. Travers – I haven’t read any of her books, and don’t know more than an hour’s worth of her real biography – but this weepy portrayal seemed absurdly out of character, maybe even within the film itself as a whole. P. L. Travers starts off with aesthetic concerns about Disney making a film of her book, but more and more they turn into emotional (sentimental) ones throughout the narrative, so that, by the end, it is exclusively, shamelessly, emotional concerns which are addressed, and supposedly ‘healed’, by the end.
The film goes halfway to addressing this. By making a film about conflict between two authors, the Disney machine is given a rare opportunity to account for its aesthetics, and the moral principles behind its art – deep things. Walt flies all the way over to London to tell ‘Pamela’ why his stories must have happy endings. Real life is so hard, so bleak, that we have to fill the craving people have for redemption somewhere: and why not in a story?
Now this is something that fits in ever so well with the theme of this blog, and of course I have thought of it lots and lots. As a general principle it is glorious, and common. Longing for redemption is everywhere, because it is true. J. R. R. Tolkien invented a term, eucatastrophe, which had a few more specific conditions than I explain, but overall, sort of diluted, refers to the turning of sorrow into joy, the turning from a dreadful plot event, in a story, to miraculous victory. The longing for a happy ending is fulfilled within our intricate little stories, Tolkien argues, because they mirror the true happy ending, the stunningly unexpected victory over certain despair and darkness of real life – the Incarnation, the cross, and Christ’s defeat of death.
And now I get on a roll, and begin to realise that Mary Poppins contains a plot remarkably close to eucatastrophe. Oh, Tolkien would have hated Disney about as much as Travers, I’m sure, but Mr Banks is sacked from his job in a remarkably humiliating way, and then restored, but to an even higher position, all on the basis of what his silly, naive, magic-believing children do. Perhaps also on the basis of his having shaken hands with a lucky chimney sweep. And then, maybe behind that all, because of Mary Poppins and the mysterious forces behind her.
I’m very grateful to Saving Mr Banks for having pointed me in that direction, of looking deeper into Mary Poppins. There are lots of witty allusions (foot-tapping; riding side saddle; carpet bags) as well as this large, rather slapped-on artistic ‘message’ about Disney, to Mary Poppins in the new film, too. Really and truly, it was a pleasant film to watch. The soundtrack was brilliant. I’m a little bit in love with Emma Thompson, her marvellous facial expressions, and her pleasantly feminine portrayal of Mrs Travers. The structure of the film, too, was a great adaptation of history into ‘story’ form, with the mystery of why Mrs Travers throws her pears in the swimming pool that is not resolved until nearly the end, and the paralleling of ‘present’ narrative time, with memories.
But the film does not do what its message sets out, which is so glib and nasty that I can’t really call it ironic. Mrs Travers is patted on the back by Walt whilst watching horrible parts of the film, and he says: ‘It’s ok. Mr Banks is going to be all right’. Now, much as we are given an interesting, though probably obnoxiously speculative, interpretation of the Mr Banks narrative in Travers’s work, this does not give Disney license to sweep all the more obvious concerns under the carpet. The animated penguins, the crass colours, and the sentimentalising that reaches a ‘macro’ level in Saving Mr Banks would have warranted probably even more revulsion from P. L. Travers than Mary Poppins, because this time Disney goes just one step further than bastardising her fiction, in taking a similar (patronising, male chauvinistic pig) liberty with her life.