The Most Charming Thing About 'Saving Mr. Banks' is its Tragedy
P.L. Travers fought Walt Disney at every twist and turn of their partnership to bring Mary Poppins to life on the big screen. The entire saga plays out in the Emma Thompson/Tom Hanks starrer, Saving Mr. Banks . As the brainchild of Travers, Mary Poppins' transition to the big screen was more than a labor of love — it was allowing piece of her life to be taken from her hands and projected out to the world. Of course the story of Mary Poppins herself was so much more than that: (minor plot spoilers ahead) the magical English nanny's tales were the happy ending she never had in her own childhood. And for Disney, the hunt for Poppins was twenty years in the making and a passion project of the highest order: a promise made to his two young daughters. The empiric entertainment executive also felt an affinity for the father at the center of the story, George Banks. It was there Saving Mr. Banks was born and found its footing: not in the magical, fantastical whimsy of Mary Poppins, but in the sadness that brought the story to life.
It is the hope found in the tragedy of innocence lost that brings a voracious sense of ownership to both of the film's protagonists. From Disney's insistence that George have a mustache to Travers' disinterest in further developing the family matriarch, both Disney and Travers have their own frame of reference for how the universal truths of the Poppins story should be depicted. Like all beloved characters, attachments are easily made, with affinities bandied about obsessively. Each person finds their own truth in the relationships of Poppins and relates in some way to the sadness Mary sets out to solve. And for someone like Travers — whose own father's redemption is at the center of the Poppins story — the inability to ensure yours is the only interpretation is a damn-near impossible task that brings about immense anxiety and recollection. It shatters the illusion she'd created and fosters a feeling of unease that wrecks havoc on the film's production.
Interwoven into Travers' two-week long endeavor at the Los Angeles home of Walt Disney Studios is the tale of her own upbringing in rural Australia, beautifully illustrating the apprehensions and idiosyncrasies of Travers. It would've been entirely easy for a story about the production of Mary Poppins to be a wholly bright and bawdy Disney affair, but Banks reflected more of the realism and influence of personal struggles. When you're bringing the imaginary to life, sometimes it's hard to let go and allow other peoples' interpretations into the fold. Memories, too, are like this: but as so often is the case with memories, an outside opinion brings things into focus. Hence the inextricable link between the two.
All of us navigate life informed by our own experiences, interactions, and relationships. Though unique to us all in style, delivery, and depth, these instances are entrenched in a sort of universal sameness: mainly that childhood makes adults of us all. It is a tragedy that so many Disney loyalists mourn, and soothe with the balms of his works.
Because, as Disney so beautifully states at the end of Banks, life's true joys are born out of how we navigate these sadnesses. "I don't tell you this to make you sad ... I'm just so tired, Mrs. Travers. I'm tired of remembering [my childhood] that way. Aren't you tired, too, Mrs. Travers? Now, we all have our sad tales: but don't you want to finish the story? Let it all go and have a life that isn't dictated by the past?" It's an idea Travers — as well as anyone else in the audience — can relate to wholeheartedly. The point is not to look at the sadness as the only take-away of life's misfortunes, but rather as a reminder to keep hoping, and instilling hope — again and again — to bring the human spirit to life. The job of the storytellers is to remind people of that. Through it all, we prevail.
Travers needed Disney to see that her story needn't be so entrenched in the painful details of her past, but rather what sprung forth from those details and allowed her to create her own future. Because, as Poppins herself states in the film, "sometimes the person we love, through no fault of their own, can't see past the end of [their] own nose." You have to let other people in to and help shape the story. And for Travers and Disney — as well as the generations of children who've read her tales — that other was Mary Poppins.
Image: Walt Disney Studios