Saving Mr. Banks is an interesting film, and one that’s deeper than it may appear at first glance. The story of P. L. Travers and Walt Disney and the making of the 1964 film Mary Poppins is used as a way to examine how we deal with the harsh realities of the world in which we live and also what responsibilities we have towards preparing children for those realities. It examines how the events of our youth shape our lives as adults and presents some of the choices we can make about how to live our lives. It offers a critique of the pre-judgments that people have a tendency to make, particularly as it pertains to Disney as a man, a company, a brand and an ideology. It defends that ideology specifically, without invalidating other methods of thought. And it has done all of this while facing some surprisingly harsh criticism and claims that the film is nothing but propaganda. I feel like that makes it ripe for some analysis. (Spoilers Below!)
*Disclaimer: For those who regularly read this blog, it’s fairly obvious that I’m a Disney fanatic. I’m a stock-owning, fanclub-card-carrying, happy-to-take-every-vacation-to-the-parks obsessive. I seek out every Disney experience I can find, but more than that I buy into the ideology. Whether that makes me a mindless drone or a corporate stooge (I promise I’m not getting paid by Disney, though I’d love to be) is for someone else to decide. The short of it is that I am in no way unbiased when it comes to Disney, and I’ve defended the company before. And while it hurts whenever something we love is criticized, my goal here is not for this to simply be one more “Disney is awesome and how dare you say otherwise!” post, but instead an examination of the film and what it has to say about varying worldviews and the Disney ideology in particular. Take from it what you will. You can read my review of the film here.
Saving Mr. Banks is (mostly) the story of P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) as she struggles with Walt Disney over the making of Mary Poppins. The story is largely told from her perspective, as we get to see much more of her reactions to events than Walt’s, and the film is filled with flashbacks to her childhood. When we first meet her in the film, she is struggling financially and her agent is trying to get her to agree to a two week meeting with Disney to explore making a film version of her books. The flashbacks give us a sense at how she arrived at the woman we see at the beginning of the film, which I’ll do my best to summarize for you. P. L. Travers was born Helen Goff and grew up in Australia with her parents and her two sisters. Around 1906, when Helen was 7 years old or so, she and her family moved from the city to a small rural town, where her father had gotten a job as a bank manager. Her father had a drinking problem which jeopardized his employment and his home life and eventually killed him, while her mother was constantly overwhelmed with her responsibilities and in one instance even suicidal. Eventually, her Aunt Ellie (her mother’s sister) came to stay with the family, bringing order to the chaos with her stern and forceful and acting as nanny for the house (and inspiring the character of Mary Poppins in the process).
However, as tragic as it is, that’s just the bare facts of the story, because the character of her parents and their relationship with her is important. Her father, Travers Goff, is in many ways like Walt Disney (or at least the Walt that was presented to the public). He encourages her to dream and use her imagination, telling her fantastical stories and encouraging whimsy, and as such she loves him dearly and they have a strong bond. Yet he never lets her see his drinking problem, the family’s financial difficulties or his problems at work. Whenever she is in danger of being exposed to these harsh realities of life he distracts her with a fun story or a game or something happy and cheerful to keep her and her sisters entertained and to shield them from things that might distress them. Understandably, when the truth finally comes out (after her father abandons the family at the local fair in order to go drinking, and then proceeds to fall off the stage while attempting to give a speech on behalf of the bank) she is shocked and unprepared for the reality she’s facing.
Her relationship with her mother isn’t explored in as much depth. She’s often seen hovering on the outside of the fun times that the father is creating, worried about all of the things he’s hiding from the children, and so beaten down by the weight that she lacks the strength to fix their situation and the free spirit to join in the fun. After the father’s drunken tumble from the stage he is laid up in bed (a bed which he won’t get up from again, according to the film), she eventually gives up on life. Choosing instead to leave her three young girls in the house and walk out to the creek and attempt to drown herself. She tells young Helen, “I know you love your father more. But one day you’ll understand,” before leaving them for the attempt. Helen looks after the children, telling them a story to distract them, but eventually goes after her mother and stops her just in time. Her mother chose to give up rather than continue to fight for her children.
In the midst of all of this, Helen’s Aunt Ellie shows up on the East Wind, like Mary Poppins herself. She brings new treatments to try to help Helen’s father, and a stern hand with the children to work on getting the house in order since Helen’s mother can’t seem to manage. Upon her arrival she tells the family, “I’m here now and I shall fix everything.” She puts the children to work, unwilling to let them simply goof off all day, and spouts out many of the phrases we later hear from Mary Poppins in the film. When Helen’s father dies, her mother tries to shield her from the bedroom where his body lies, but Aunt Ellie tells her mother to let her go. After realizing what has happened, Helen turns on Aunt Ellie and tells her, “You promised you would fix everything.”
These events obviously play a huge role on forming the P. L. Travers we meet as an adult, and on the Mary Poppins stories she created. She loved her father, and even seemed to forgive her mother, and she modeled herself on the firm, stern, formal Aunt Ellie. (She also changed her name to Pamela Travers, taking her father’s first name as her last.) Most interestingly, she’s used the story of Mary Poppins as a way to rewrite and edit her own life story. She has taken a family with some issues (though not on the level that the Mary Poppins film portrays) and has sent them a nanny who really does fix everything. A nanny who teaches the children the lessons they need for life, often in very frightening ways. She takes them on adventures that are not nearly as nice as those in the film version, and is often harsh to them, always while threatening to abandon them. However, the family that results from this is a generally happy one, capable of surviving whatever the world throws at them. She reimagines her life through the story as one where she was properly prepared for how painful and disappointing the world can be. And within that framework she finds a sense of peace and is able to appreciate her past by editing out the tragedy and reimagining it to be more like her books.
Of course, this makes her very protective of her story. All authors are protective, and all art is personal on some level, but it’s an extreme with Travers. Hence her insistence that every possible aspect of the film adhere not only to the text of her book but the picture in her head from which the books were drawn. When the writers suggest making Mrs. Banks into a suffragette, in order to give her a reason to be out of the house instead of raising the children and therefore necessitating having a nanny, she objects to their classification of the Mrs. Banks from her book as neglectful. She answers their comment that she needs to have a job in order to explain the need for the nanny by saying, “Being a mother is a job. A very difficult job and one that not everybody is up to, that not everybody should have taken on in the first place!” When they come to the part of the story where Mr. Banks tears up the children’s advertisement for the nanny position (echoing a flashback moment where Travers’ father, sick in bed, harshly criticizes a poem she had written for him), she asks, “Why did you have to make him so cruel? He was not a monster! … It’s a dreadful thing to do! I don’t understand! Why have you made him so unspeakably awful? For all the world to see, in glorious Technicolor? You claim to make them live—if that happens can’t he? Can’t they at least live well? I can’t bear it. … I’ll feel like I let him down again.” Their changes to her story (which provide the film with more of a narrative arc than exists in the books) not only feel like changes to her very history, but are changes that bring up some of the very feelings she felt as a child during these tragedies. Feelings which she has suppressed by editing her life through her writing.
One of the big themes of the film is the idea of “promises”. In her youth, Travers is promised by her father that he’ll never lose her, one of the most common promises parents make to sooth one of children’s biggest fears of abandonment. He also promises his wife that he’ll make a good life for them and make her proud again. Later, when Aunt Ellen arrives she promises that she will fix everything. Unspoken but still present is the promise from Travers’ mother that is implicit in parenthood, that the parent will be responsible in his/her duties. However, all of these promises to the young girl are broken, and what’s more they’re broken not by some freak accident or disaster but by the choices made by the adults in her life and the circumstances of the world. Her father dies, losing her for good. Her mother chooses to kill herself rather than live up to her responsibilities (that she fails in the attempt does not make the promise any less broken). And Aunt Ellen is unable to fix everything but nevertheless chooses to lie to the children and pretend like she can.
In short, her life has been defined by disappointment. In fact, she has come to embrace and expect disappointment, telling Walt on the phone, “Disappointments are to the soul what the thunderstorm is to the air.” (Walt hangs up on her after this comment.) She arrives at Disney Studios and is made all manner of promises but believes none of them, insisting that everything be recorded partly in order to provide a record when the disappointment eventually arrives. Upon her first meeting with Walt, who has been trying to get the rights for the film for almost 20 years, he tells her of the promise he made to his daughters to make the books into a movie, and that he has “never, I swear, never broken a promise to either one of my Disney girls. … That’s what being a daddy is all about, right?” “Is it?” she asks him. Over the course of the film, he seduces her into starting to believe in the movie they are making, that it will live up to her expectations and to his promises. Later, when he breaks the promise (at least from her perspective) that the film will be live action and not animated, she storms away, heading back to England after calling herself a “foolish old woman” for ever having believed his promises. As she storms out she tells him, “You shouldn’t make promise you can’t keep, especially to children, they hold onto them you see? And those promises they just sit there inside of them, like little doses of poison, all those broken promises, eating away forever. The books weren’t written for the children. They were written for the promise breakers.”
She is furious both at him for breaking his promise but also at herself for believing in him, if even for a short while, and opening herself up to the pain of disappointment. Her way of coping with the world is to expect disappointment and therefore to deaden the pain when it inevitably arrives. It’s a worldview wrapped in cynicism and it was her way of surviving the tragedy and heartache of her youth. The books, in addition to being a way to edit her life story, were a way to not only prepare children for disappointment but to remind parents of the dangers of disappointing their children. Saving Mr. Banks offers up some criticism of this worldview (more on that in a bit), but is more interested in understand it than critiquing it. After all, she survived her past and came out of childhood as a less self-destructive adult than either of her parents. We all face disappointment in life, but becoming stern and harsh is far more preferable to killing yourself with alcohol or giving up completely and trying to drown yourself. In the film, it’s important for Walt to come to understand her life and not to simply dismiss her as just another overprotective writer, which he finally does and connects with her on a level that convinces her to sign over the rights to her books.
Her worldview gives her a very negative opinion of Walt from the beginning, and of his various works. From the very beginning she is convinced she knows “what he’s going to do to her. She’ll be cavorting and twinkling! Careening towards a happy ending like a kamikaze.” She arrives at her hotel in Hollywood and sees a TV clip of Walt interacting with Tinkerbell and is intrigued for a moment before switching it off in disgust. She objects to the film being a musical, because “these books simply do not lend themselves to chirping and prancing.” Later, when Walt points out “songs” in her books she says, “Those aren’t songs! They’re recitations. She is not a giddy woman, she does not jig! Singing is frivolous and wholly unnecessary for a governess, an educatress. … I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.”
She objects not only to Walt as a salesman and a corporate head, but his entire philosophy of entertainment. After being played “A Spoonful of Sugar” by the Sherman Brothers, and hearing Walt’s praise of the song, she says, “It seems enormously patronizing to me. The very sort of annoying tune you would have playing in your themed park I daresay. All giddy and carefree, encouraging children to face the world unarmed. All they need is a spoon and some sugar and a brain full of fluff and they’re equipped with life’s tools. Wonderful! … My point is that, unlike yourself, Mary Poppins is the very enemy of sentiment and whimsy. She is truthful, she doesn’t sugar coat the darkness in the world that these children will eventually come to know. She prepares them for it, she deals in honesty. One must clean one’s room; it won’t magically do it itself!”
She felt lied to by her father, who made everything fun and “sugar coated” and she was therefore unprepared for the tragedies she faced. To her, everything Walt Disney produces is a lie to children, full of promises of happy endings and good times that are incapable of being fulfilled, designed to sell toys and movie tickets. She calls Disneyland Walt’s “dollar printing machine”. When Walt finally takes her to the park, she’s overwhelmed by its bright colors and happy appearance, but is shocked when Walt is asked for his autograph and instead of signing the girl’s book he instead hands her a pre-signed card from his pocket and passes them out to all of those who ask for an autograph. To her, it’s a sign that Walt doesn’t really care about the people and that everything he does is simply pre-calculated. In every way Walt lives up (or in this case down) to her expectations of a huckster and swindler, even his habit of everyone using their first names around the office, which to her seems not only inappropriate but also insincere. She expected and imagined all of this and everything she sees reinforces her expectations and protects her from disappointment.
Later, after she has fled back to England over the animation dispute, Walt comes and makes one last attempt to convince her to do the movie. He says, “You look at me and you see some kind of Hollywood King Midas. You think I’ve built an empire and that I want to use your Mary Poppins as just another brick in my kingdom. You think I see her with a carpetbag full of greenbacks.” When she asks if that’s really what he thinks of her creation he scoffs and says that he wouldn’t have pursued Travers and Mary Poppins for twenty years if he did. And then he gets to the heart of the matter: “No, you expected me to disappoint you and so you made sure I did. You see, I think life disappoints you Mrs. Travers. I think it’s done that a lot. Maybe Mary Poppins is the only person in your life who hasn’t.” This is totally in line with what we’ve learned about P. L. Travers thus far in the film, about her way of coping with the world. But what happens next, while still understanding the reasons for her attitude, offers a criticism of it.
Walt tells the story of his youth, finally giving us a glimpse into the man who has been more icon than human until this point in the film. He tells Travers about growing up in Missouri where his dad owned a newspaper route that delivered a thousand papers twice per day (morning and evening edition). His father was a “save-a-penny anywhere you can type of fella” and made his sons Walt and Roy deliver papers instead of hiring someone outside the family. This caused major problems for the boys in winter: “Old Elias didn’t believe in new shoes until the old ones were worn right through so… Honestly, Mrs. Travers, the snow would be up to here… You’d pus through it like wading through molasses. And the cold and the wet would be seeping through the shoes and the skin would be raw and peeling from our faces… and sometimes I’d find myself sunk down in the snow, waking up, ‘cause I must’ve passed out for a moment… I dunno. Then school, too cold to figure out an education. And back into the snow so by the time we got home it’d be just getting dark, and every part of you would sting like crazy as it slowly came back to life in the warmth. My mother would feed us dinner and then it’d be time to go out again for the evening edition. ‘Best be quick Walt, best be quick or poppa’s gonna show you the buckle end again boy.’”
He tells her not a day goes by where he doesn’t think of being a little boy in the snow and his dad with the belt strap in his fist and it makes him tired remembering life that way. It’s why he tells stories, to be able to edit his own history the same way Travers does. But where she uses her stories to reset her life with a sense of reality and expectations of the harshness of the world, Walt does things for a different reason: hope. “George Banks will be redeemed,” he tells her. “George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Saving Mr. Banks, at its heart, is about these two conflicting worldviews, which some would be tempted to simplify to “optimism” and “pessimism” but that would be a grave injustice. The views of Mrs. Travers and Walt are both methods to deal with the world around us, which will do everything it can to tear us down. Both have drawbacks and both have advantages, and the film tries to portray both sides of each. Walt’s style distracts from the pain of the past by hope in the future, and his joyous attitude makes daily life fun and enjoyable, yet it also leaves him open to future pain and disappointment (you need only read about the animators strike of 1941 to know how his open and trusting manner left him vulnerable to pain). Travers style smooths out the lows of life, but also eliminates the possibility of highs. She spends her life looking for disappointment and finds it, and is therefore never really disappointed. However, she’s never positively surprised either. The film presents both of these views as valid, and even necessary for people to be able to survive in the world, but though it shows understanding for both it does make an argument for Walt’s perspective on life.
It’s here that the film becomes a little more assertive and a little more controversial. I don’t feel like it ever negatively judges Travers (the key here is always a sense of understanding and compassion for her life), but it does show us some of the drawbacks of her attitude, and in particular its application towards Disney ideology. For many people, the big question is whether the film is “Disney propaganda”, a question I’ve seen debated over the internet. It, of course, depends on what definition of propaganda you use. Mirriam-Webster has several definitions, the first of which is “ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause.” A later definition is a little less strongly worded and says “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” I think one could safely argue that not only is Saving Mr. Banks propaganda by the 2nd definition, but so are almost all other films that have a message or a statement. After all, they are ideas that are deliberately spread to further a cause, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing (unless you disagree with the cause they are supporting). However, the term “propaganda” has a tendency to have a negative connotation, more aligned with the claims of “often false or exaggerated” information that are misleading to those exposed to it.
Interestingly, Meryl Streep seems to have both challenged so-called “Disney Propaganda” and spread some of her own in a recent speech honoring Emma Thompson for her performance in the film. In the speech (which was mostly serving to highlight how strong a woman Thompson is), Streep took some rather huge swipes at Disney, both the man and the company. She complained about Disney’s contracts and their “brand building” motivations instead of considering what they’re putting out into the culture. She also takes some rather pointed shots at Walt himself, implying that he was a racist and directly stating that Walt didn’t like women and was an anti-Semite. Her apparent reason for doing this, beyond contrasting him with Emma Thompson, seems to be a desire to combat the image of the company and the man, which is an interesting motivation for someone who just completed filming for Disney on Into the Woods, the movie adaptation of the Sondheim musical. We don’t know what happened during that experience to cause her to burn these bridges, but I wouldn’t expect to see her out promoting the film much over the coming year.
However, I feel like her statement, which is obviously propaganda based on the second definition, also applies to the first definition, as it creates a misleading image of the man and the company. Walt Disney was most definitely a product of his times, and while that does not in any way defend any of the reportedly racist, anti-Semitic or “gender bigot” things that he said and did, it is important to give some context. Floyd Norman, who worked with Walt for years, offers some context and some counter arguments to her speech in a post on his blog. Walt probably felt comfortable saying racist things based on his background and upbringing, he was definitely associated with the Motion Picture Alliance which was very anti-Semitic, and like most employers of the time he hired very few women for major roles in his company. However, he worked frequently with people of all races, was one of the first to promote women to higher positions in the company, and was often surrounded by Jewish artists, including the Sherman Brothers from Saving Mr. Banks, with whom he worked extensively on films and in the theme parks. I would never say the man was a saint, nor would I offer any excuse for the racist comments or films he made (Song of the South is most definitely racist as are aspects of some of his other films), his all-too-common prejudices against women’s abilities in the workplace (a particularly large thorn in my side given my feminist leanings), or his association with groups that were anti-Semitic, but I do think that his background and the time period offer a fairly reasonable explanation, though most definitely not an excuse. I feel like Streep’s speech falls on the negative side of the propaganda definition not only because it lacks this context, but also ignores how his sensibilities evolved over the years. The letter that she mentions was from 1938, but by the time of his death in the 1966 he had changed his employment practices and women were much more prevalent 20-30 years after that letter. But most importantly is the anecdotal evidence, from women, African-Americans and Jews who worked for Walt and who never had anything but praise for him. He may have had (and probably did have) tendencies toward bigotry, but unlike other more recent examples (Orson Scott Card, for one) he never campaigned on behalf of his bigoted tendencies, in fact his body of work shows that he worked against them. From all accounts, his actions and message were always about inclusion and equality. Meryl Streep most likely did not directly lie in her speech, but in my opinion she was most definitely misleading. (Plus, I feel like despite her praise of Thompson, her criticism of all things Disney doesn’t exactly reflect well on Thompson for signing up with them and appearing in the movie.)
Streep’s antagonism towards everything Disney, as well as that of Travers in the film, is surprisingly common. Disney seems to get what I would say is an unnecessary amount of criticism given what it creates. In many ways, Saving Mr. Banks tries to answer a lot of those criticisms, though does so in a way that isn’t preachy or self-aggrandizing. Travers, as a struggling writer, sees the mega-corporation that is Disney as a soulless factory whose output is only designed to print money for the shareholders by misleading children with a “spoonful of sugar” and pandering instead of contributing art and meaning to the world. As I’ve stated previously, the film explores the reasons for this, from her tragic childhood of disappointment to the way she edited her own history to make her life more tolerable. However it also specifically addresses many of her preconceptions and misjudgments about Disney and while she probably doesn’t see them, I feel like the intention is that the audience will. And what really struck me about the film is that it challenges these notions without loud fanfares and preaching the company’s virtues but instead does it through example and subtlety.
Of course, the biggest point that the film makes is how people see what they want to see. Travers spends the film finding ways for the experience to exactly meet her expectations of disappointment. She sees only what she wants to see, as do many people in the world. So often I hear from people, on the release of a new Disney film, that it’s “just another singing princess movie” or “just another kids’ movie” without bothering to look at its substance. Interestingly, Travers states that she didn’t write the Mary Poppins books for children, despite the fact that they are definitely classified as “children’s books”, but she thinks of Disney and animation and accuses the film of being pandering to children. I found two interesting quotes that show a bit of hypocrisy to Travers statements. The first is from Travers herself, talking about her writing: “You do not chop off a section of your imaginative substance and make a book specifically for children, for — if you are honest — you have no idea where childhood ends and maturity begins. It is all endless and all one.” Travers also objected to her books being simply dismissed because of the classification of being a children’s book. The second is from Walt: “I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty. Call the child “innocence”. The worst of us is not without innocence, although buried deeply it might be.” Of course, the two have seemingly different opinions about what that means when it comes to art, but I think it’s fair to say that their targets were the same.
Travers objections to Disney films selling children on an unrealistic view of the world is echoed every time Disney releases a new film. The argument is that Disney creates unrealistic expectations in children, of love and happy endings, which leaves them unprepared for the real world. In the film Travers herself has been a victim of this, with the truth of her family’s situation hidden from her with fun and games by her father. She complains about the portrayal of Mary Poppins by the writers, when she feels that Mary Poppins should be teaching the children lessons about the reality of the world instead of feeding them a spoonful of sugar. Interestingly, however, she passionately objects to Mr. Banks’ cruel behavior toward the children, wanting him to be nice and to simply get to live. In doing so, she points out one of the great flaws in the criticism of Disney stories.
In today’s post-modern sensibilities, cynicism and skepticism are the modus operandi. People see Disney’s happy endings (and really, most popular films have a happy ending, Disney or otherwise) and scoff at the story as being unrealistic and misleading. However, they often miss the darkness that proceeds the happy endings. Snow White, Cinderella and Arthur are both orphans, raised by people who despise and mistreat them, Dumbo’s mother is imprisoned for defending him from being bullied, Pinocchio is misled by con artists, kidnapped and forced to perform for people (really, a form of prostitution), and Bambi’s mother is famously murdered. And those are just the films from Walt’s era. All Disney films (and all stories in general) feature conflict, and many of them feature danger, life or death situations, and tragedy. Disney himself talked about this very issue in a 1963 essay (which was nominally about prayer): “But I don’t believe in playing down to children, either in life or in motion pictures. I didn’t treat my own youngsters like fragile flowers, and I think no parent should. Children are people, and they should have to reach to learn about things, to understand things, just as adults have to reach if they want to grow in mental stature. Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things; but there are evil things too, and you are not doing a child a favor by trying to shield him from reality.”
However, this aspect of Disney films often gets overlooked when talk focuses on the happy endings, which are the biggest dividing point when it comes to Disney. Travers worries about how Mary Poppins will get a “Disneyfied” happy ending, which in theory would undo everything that she feels Mary Poppins stands for. And, unfortunately, this is where words like “optimist” and “pessimist” tend to get thrown around a lot. In today’s society, the films that are most highly praised in discussion tend to be the darkest ones. An easy example are superhero movies, which have taken a turn for the dark in recent years starting with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But there is a contrasting element to this in the Marvel films (conveniently for this discussion now owned by Disney) which are considerably lighter and have more standard “happy endings”. One recent poll I saw voted Man of Steel as the best comic book movie of the year, over competitors like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Man of Steel’s dark take on Superman was considerably darker and more violent than others in the past, reflecting our modern sensibilities (the fact that Iron Man 3 took the hero to some especially dark places involving Post Traumatic Stress Disorder seems to be largely ignored). But while dark films get the most praise in discussion, light films (those with happy endings) make more money. How does one explain this?
There’s a sequence in Saving Mr. Banks that I think exemplifies this. Early in the film, when Travers first arrives at her hotel, she is disgusted by all the Disney merchandise that was placed there for her. She stuffs all of it in the closet and proceeds to the bedroom to find an enormous stuffed Mickey Mouse sitting on the bed. She sticks him in a corner facing the wall, as if in punishment for simply existing, and gives him dirty looks and snide comments throughout the film. Later in the film however, after a particularly rough day and a frustrating phone call with her agent encouraging her to sign Disney’s papers for the money, she sits alone in the darkness. She checks her medication for something to help her calm down and sleep but doesn’t find anything. She spots the giant Mickey sitting in the corner and drags it into bed with her, wrapping her arms around it for comfort before falling asleep.
Now, I’m sure this is simply a fictional scene created for the film, but it actually says a lot about human nature, particularly these days. We talk a lot about the darkness of the world, and we’re constantly reminded of it with every news story that appears. Our personal lives are never easy, with disputes with family and coworkers, financial difficulties and the feeling of being oppressed by the system. There’s a feeling that our entertainment should reflect those feelings by giving us something we can relate to. However, when it comes down to it, people still like happy endings and still need comfort. Yes, we want to relate to characters onscreen and see our own frustrations reflected, but we also want things to work out in the end. We don’t want over-the-top happiness that ignores reality, but once we’ve identified with a character we don’t want to see them beaten down and defeated in the end. Just look at how many people watch so-called “dark” TV shows because they’re able to relate to them but then complain when their favorite character is killed. That darkness is a necessary part of the story, I think everyone would agree (including Walt, based on the quote above), but what happens after the darkness is the question. The complaint against Disney is that happy endings don’t happen that often and therefore shouldn’t happen in movies, yet people still want them from their stories. Of course, happy endings are a living embodiment of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”. It’s a way to deal with the “bitter pill” of life that we (and Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins) have to take.
The quote from Disney continues with one final line: “The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil, and that is what our pictures attempt to do.” Many people, including Travers, would see this as pandering. They might say, “Happy endings sell, so Disney makes everything happy to make more money.” They would say that good doesn’t always triumph over evil and to claim or show otherwise is not just a lie but an injustice. But that’s a crucial misreading of both the quote and of the Disney ideology in general. Disney never said that “good always triumphs over evil” but instead says that “good can always triumph over evil.” It’s a small but important distinction which turns both the quote and the idea behind it from the lie that many interpret it as being into hope and inspiration. The thought that happy endings are possible is what keeps us going, it’s what has inspired the great movements of progress throughout history, and it’s what keeps people from giving up. It’s the spoonful of sugar.
People go to Disneyland or Walt Disney World and walk down Main Street U.S.A. just as Walt and Travers do in Saving Mr. Banks, and they dismiss it as nostalgic nonsense that trivializes the dark parts of American history. They head through a castle to Fantasyland and they see a façade that presents a false image of the world. Quite literally, it is a fantasy, with nothing real to give it anything worthwhile. But both those thoughts are missing what Disney is all about. Fantasyland is an escape from the outside world, something that everyone needs now and then. It’s a place of safety and happiness and self-expression that I find shocking that people object to. As for Main Street U.S.A., of course it’s idealized. That’s the point. It’s not supposed to be a model of the past but an image to strive towards. When dedicating Disneyland, Walt said, “To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” There’s a reason that Saving Mr. Banks has a shot that lingers on the window on Main Street U.S.A. that bears the name of Walt’s father. It’s a reminder of the darkness in the past that we must overcome to create the future to which we aspire.
It’s the ambition to inspire as much as entertain that sets Walt apart, and it’s something that some people (and P. L. Travers in the film) seem unable to understand. Travers created Mary Poppins as a way to prepare the children so that they can survive in the world. Walt created his films as a way to show the children that the darkness they will face should be fought and can be overcome. I think that’s an important message for everyone, but it’s one that is dismissed as sappy or pandering. But that hope for the future is what keeps us going, the dream that things could be better is what drives people to create change, the idea that we can win is what makes people fight for what they believe in, and those hopes, dreams and ideas require inspiration to exist and grow. It’s a sentimental message, to be sure, but there’s nothing wrong with sentiment or sincerity. Sarcasm and cynicism are perfectly valid ways to lessen life’s pains, but these positive, sentimental views are the things that drive us forward.
There’s a movement in art and philosophy called “new sincerity”, which is a reaction to postmodern irony and cynicism. It consists, in part, of celebrating things that bring us joy and happiness (“things that are awesome” according to radio host Jesse Thorn). It’s an attitude that has grown recently and can be found on corners of the internet like Tumblr and celebrating everything from Disney to a wide variety of shows and movies and even things like the new My Little Pony TV series. With a focus on love, sentimentality, emotion and enthusiasm, it’s obviously something that I greatly identify with, even if I hadn’t heard the term “new sincerity” until recently. It’s the sort of movement that doesn’t criticize people for loving something passionately and instead rejoices that they’ve created those emotional connections. It’s a feeling that I think Walt Disney could have related to.
Of course, as a huge company, Disney will always be criticized, and terms like “soulless machine” will be thrown around in connection to it. In all honesty, I’ve grown tired of defending Disney. Not out of any change in my enthusiasm for it, but simply because the arguments never change and, like Travers, many people are unwilling to listen. (I do find it hilarious how loudly a particular subset of Disney fans complain about everything Disney does, however.) And it is certainly true that Disney continues to make an enormous amount of money. The question in Saving Mr. Banks that hovers over the film is whether Disney is simply pursuing Mary Poppins as another jewel in his crown at the cost of its author. One particular moment seems to most strongly confirm Travers’ suspicions about Disney. While at Disneyland, Walt is approached by a group of people who recognize him and want his autograph but instead of signing their books he hands out pre-signed cards (I mentioned this moment earlier). To her it is callous, cold and calculating, lacking in any real connection to the people who want to meet him (although, hilariously, she refuses to sign autographs when Walt directs the fans to her).
However, the reality is more complicated. While it’s never explicitly commented on, the implication is that having pre-signed cards allows him to interact with more people, to spread more happiness. If he signs the cards beforehand, he can shake more hands and meet with more fans than if he had to stop and sign each book individually. (You need only to look at the long lines of people at the parks waiting for autographs from characters to know how slow the process can be.) It’s most definitely calculating, but it’s not cold or callous, particularly not when compared to refusing to sign autographs at all. Walt was always someone with big plans and dreams, and stopping to sign autographs would have slowed him down. His cheerful interaction with everyone he meets pretty conclusively shows how much he cared about the people he interacted with, choosing to spend time looking them in the face rather than looking down at an autograph book.
Of course, in the end Mary Poppins does get made and Travers relents and hands over the rights, though we’ll never know if she did it solely for the money or because Walt convinced her that her story was in safe hands. And in most respects Walt got exactly what he wanted with the film. He was able to cast Dick Van Dyke, he includes animation and songs, and one could easily get the impression that he schemed and bullied Travers into it. It’s easy to imagine that with the entire weight of the Disney company behind him, Walt was unstoppable. And that’s probably true, but that interpretation forgets certain things. At one point in the film, Walt tells Richard Sherman how well he knows what Travers is going to, because he has fought the battle from her side over the rights to Mickey Mouse to a “big terrifying New York producer”. In the end, he refused to sell because it would have killed him, but it would have made life so much easier for him and his family if he had sold.
One of the most famous Walt Disney quotes is “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing — that it all started with a mouse.” It’s one you’ll see all over the parks and in any biography or exploration of Disney’s history. Walt always remembered his roots and could identify with the plight of artists wanting to protect their work. But what’s lost in all of this is that Mary Poppins the film is the work of artists as well. There’s a reason the bulk of the film is spent in a room where Don DaGradi and Richard and Robert Sherman strive to create the film (with Travers’ help and hinderance). As we see the Sherman Brothers create songs from the inspiration of the world around them, or with a particular message to send, we realize that their work is just as valid as Travers’. As we see DaGradi’s sketches of sets and costumes and design on the wall, and we hear his words and see the story he is crafting, we realize that his vision is just as valid as Travers’. And while Mary Poppins may not at all be the film that Travers imagined, the fact remains that it was not only a huge commercial success, but a work of singular vision that was unanimously praised and has become a beloved classic.
Perhaps that is what bothers people the most about Saving Mr. Banks. Maybe that’s why there’s a hint of bitterness in the criticisms of Disney that one hears so often. The fact is that Disney as a company is often right. Yes, they have a certain formula and an ideology and they stick to it, but it’s so often a success that it bothers people. It’s one thing to make a sincere, loving, heartfelt film that is a resounding hit if you’re an independent, when you’re David. But when Goliath not only wins, but does so by making people happy, it can be infuriating. With Disney purchasing Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm over the past span of years, Goliath keeps getting bigger and expanding its influence. We all like to see ourselves as underdogs and so we root for them, and Disney is never really an underdog. I think when you combine this fact with the observation that of all production companies Disney is the only one with such a definitive and solid vision and ideology, it provides an easy target for those looking to vent.
You need only look at the reaction to something like The Lone Ranger to see evidence of it. Given all of the complaints about how Disney is too bright and cheerful and happy and doesn’t reflect the world or that Disney doesn’t take risks, it’s ironic that The Lone Ranger was criticized for being too dark and is in many ways a much bigger risk than most studios take. When Universal or Paramount or 20th Century Fox or Warner Brothers releases a film, it doesn’t have the baggage associated with it that Disney does with the automatic connection to every other film in their library. If the opening titles were missing from films, you generally couldn’t tell which of the other studios produced the film, but you can usually tell when it’s Disney. A success by 20th Century Fox doesn’t have much of an impact with the population in terms of positive reaction to the company, while a successful Disney film is a success for Disney the company. A failure by Universal doesn’t draw the ire and derision towards the studio the way the failures of The Prince of Persia, John Carter or The Lone Ranger have for Disney. (If you’re looking for a parallel to Disney, Nintendo is the same boat when it comes to video games.)
This is why, I expect, Disney probably has more stringent “brand protection” segments of the contracts (though I’m sure every other contract Meryl Streep has signed with a studio has had “brand protection” in it as well). No other major studio has a goal or mission with their products the way Disney does. All studios want to make money, sure, but as Walt once said: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” Given that every success and failure is magnified for Disney much more than it is for other studios, it makes sense for them to be extra protective. Walt said, “Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.” The same can be said for the company as a whole. And while there have been exceptions, blemishes and outright mistakes and failures, it’s dedication to the principles, hopes and dreams of its creator is something rarely seen these days. It’s an example of “doing it for the art”.
If you’re still reading at this point, let me say “Thank you!” (and I’m so sorry this has been so long!). I know this won’t convince the skeptics, and all of us, including myself and P. L. Travers, generally see what we set out to find. But perhaps this has made you think a bit more about Saving Mr. Banks, about Disney in particular, and about the role of the stories we tell both for children and in society as a whole. I’ll continue to defend Disney, not just because I love it passionately, but because it means something very important to me and is an integral part of who I am. I’m sure on a lot of levels I’m idealizing things, and I’m sure that more than one person would call me naïve, but I subscribe fully to the Disney ideology. I feel it’s important not only to acknowledge life’s hardships but to strive for happy endings. It’s this attitude that has kept me going in life and brought me out of some of my darkest places. And while altering one’s outlook is not always easy or even possible (I’m not going to delve into the topic of depression of diagnosable disorders here, but suffice to say that not everyone can simply “choose” to be different, and it would be extremely insulting of my to imply that they could), and we all do what we need to find a way to survive this world, I know that for me the so-called Disney ideology is something that works for me. It brings me joy, it helps me through the rough spots and keeps me inspired and motivated. And, to me, Saving Mr. Banks was as good an exploration and defense of that ideology as I’ve ever seen.