Why Mr. Banks Needed Saving

*This post contains minor spoilers about the film, Saving Mr. Banks, but I question if they count as spoilers since the historical events in the film are well-documented in many Walt Disney biographies or Disney histories.*
*and there are some spoilers about Mary Poppins, but I would like to pretend that everyone has seen that film in this day and age.*

My friend in her review of Oz Great and Powerful observed that Disney has been rewriting its origin myths lately. Indeed, they invested gobs into a redo of Disneyland California Adventure to theme the park to the Los Angeles of Walt’s arrival. When I initially saw the trailers for Saving Mr. Banks, I saw her observation in action to a new level. Here is the first bio-pic of Walt Disney, highlighting a very specific time and turning point in Disney History–the production meetings with P.L. Travers to secure the rights to Mary Poppins.

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Mary Poppins is one of my favorite Disney films. Heck, it may possibly be one of my favorite films of All Time. I found solace in Mary’s guidance when my mother was first hospitalized for her COPD. I still to this day think of the Denver capitol building when I hear “Feed the Birds.” Whenever I feel a little blue, Mary Poppins is one of my cheer-up films. I have such intimacy with the film that I refuse to see it on stage…So I can understand why Mrs. Travers would hesitate to allow Disney to make the film.

Here’s the trailer:

I have always been aware that Mary Poppins arrives at the Banks’ to help put a family back together, which also involves helping Mr. Banks appreciate his family, not just his well-ordered life. Mrs. Banks is a secret suffragette, dividing her time between her husband, children, and her cause. Sometimes she can get overwhelmed, as when she comes home from the meeting and doesn’t initially hear Katie Nanna’s resignation, but she quickly comes around. The children just want to be loved.

There are two distinct storylines, beautifully interwoven in Saving Mr. Banks: Travers’ memories of her childhood at a particularly difficult time and her visit to Disney to negotiate how the film will be made. The underlying theme of the film appears to address the classic Freudian Daddy Issue. The film portrays Travers Goff, Mrs. Travers’ father, as kind and loving, but drunk and falling apart. The young Travers loves her father completely, even defying her mother to get him booze. We see Mrs. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) in the middle of the film meltdown during a production meeting because she feels they are making Mr. Banks into this cruel father who doesn’t even mend the kite (inspiring the “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” sequence, borrowed also from the Sherman Brothers’ relationship with their father). Walt (Tom Hanks) convinces her to give him the rights when he flies to London and explains his own father relationship and that Mary Poppins is actually about saving Mr. Banks.

Who is Mr. Banks but that hyperrational piece of all of us who just needs some play in his life? Regardless of the claim that Walt wanted the rights because of a promise to his daughters, the movie of Mary Poppins reminds us to just stop and play, or fly a kite or just love to laugh. Much of Disney reflects the need for play, ever more so following the opening of Disneyland. Play is the spoonful of medicine, and with the total themed experience of the park, we’re allowed to shut out the outside world and be in the land of Dream. That we can do it consciously and physically is what makes it so potent, provided we are willing to release ourselves to it, captured beautifully in Travers’ (Emma Thompson) hesitation to go to the park, much less ride the carousel.

The business about the origin story? Mary Poppins ushered in a new era for the Disney studio, allowing it to grow and expand in a way it hadn’t done since the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It gave the studio the money to continue developing films and to be able to devote itself to the World’s Fair attractions, expanding Disneyland, and dreaming about the Florida Project. In other words, Mary Poppins made possible the only Disney I and many others know–the Legacy that was able to survive Walt’s death.

Sure, there were some liberties taken in this film (Saving Mr. Banks), some of which may even include the storyline of Travers’ childhood (I know nothing about her). But the film does stay true to the spirit of Poppins and to the spirit of Disney. Travers (Emma Thompson) remarks to Walt, “You mean, Disney didn’t make man in his own image?” Well, no, but those of us who willingly go for the Disney dream share the same attributes: we love to laugh, we happily will fly a kite, and we know how to invest our tuppance.

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