Film of the Week: Saving Mr. Banks
If Saving Mr. Banks has the effect on you that it’s so craftily engineered to have, you may come out wanting, as the song says, to go fly a kite. Of course, the kite is heavily emblazoned with the Walt Disney corporate logo. Directed by John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks is the story behind the making of Mary Poppins: it’s at once an extraordinarily lavish brand-awareness exercise and the origin myth of a singularly durable film property (it would make an interesting double bill with last year’s Hitchcock, about the overcoming of the obstacles that nearly scuppered Psycho).
Scripted by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the film recounts the meeting of Australian-born author P. L. Travers (née Helen Goff) and Walt Disney. The mogul had been pursuing the rights to Travers’s book Mary Poppins for some 20 years before persuading her to sign on the dotted line, resulting in the much-adored animation/live-action hybrid of 1964. And if “sign on the dotted line” has a matrimonial ring, that’s quite appropriate: the film depicts a fraught courtship that ended in a union between writer and producer, the couple eventually giving birth to a flock of cartoon penguins and a gorblimey-accented Dick Van Dyke.
We first see Travers (Emma Thompson) at home in London, with her agent persuading her to give in and visit Hollywood, where Disney wants her to get together with his resident talents—specifically, songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak)—and thrash out ideas for a big-screen version of Poppins. Naturally, the stiff, suspicious Englishwoman—a persona concealing a traumatized Australian childhood—hates everything about Los Angeles, from the smell of jasmine to the brisk casualness of manners (“So disconcerting to hear a complete stranger use my first name”). And she’s horrified by the suggestion that her jealously guarded nanny character should become the subject of a musical: “Mary Poppins does not sing.”
Travers’s refusal of Californian warmth and intimacy, however superficial and phony they may be, suggests intense sexual repression, which the script sometimes makes evident to an alarming degree: “Why, I could just eat you up!” beams Mr. Disney (Tom Hanks) on first meeting her. “That wouldn’t be appropriate,” she sniffs. The face-off between Hanks’s glowing, avuncular mogul and Thompson’s quasi-virginal walking isotope of anxiety (with nice subliminal echoes of Julie Andrews) makes this a strange-bedfellows comedy par excellence, and if Travers and Disney don’t actually go to bed together, it’s a close thing. Travers does end up horizontal, though: literally at one point, lying in her hotel bed muttering about her father, and more generally in a figurative way, supine on the shrink’s couch that the encounter with Walt embodies.
For Saving Mr. Banks is above all a tale of therapy, showing how a neurotic British patient is enabled by an open-hearted, emotionally and psychologically astute, foreign doctor-guru to open up, let go, find Closure—just like in The King’s Speech. There’s a moment when Disney, mystified by Travers’s resistance, muses “What am I missing here?” like Columbo chasing that elusive clue to a case.
But the audience knows from the start what Disney doesn’t yet: that Travers is haunted by an unhappy childhood. It begins when little Helen (Annie Rose Buckley) is torn from the idyllic garden of her early youth to remote Allora, where her father Travers Goff (an earnestly ingratiating Colin Farrell) has taken a new post in a bank. Helen and her Papa enjoy an intense daughter-daddy romance that will go wrong as the troubled, alcoholic, poetically inclined Mr. Goff begins to go off the rails. Travers’s Los Angeles adventures are intercut with childhood flashbacks, the two strands converging weirdly when an especially traumatic memory in which Dad bursts into Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, is re-created in Mary Poppins by David Tomlinson as the city gent named Mr. Banks.
It’s hardly surprising that the adult Travers should recoil at a roomful of soft toys—or that, eventually, she should seek comfort by cuddling a giant-sized Mickey Mouse. The film cleverly plays our sympathies both ways, encouraging us at different times to identify with the viewpoint of the big-hearted, innocently mystified Americans (what’s eating this tight-assed broad?) and that of the witty, sharply intelligent, suffer-no-fools Travers (why must these Yankees be so terribly childish?). We’re invited to wince with Travers at the infantilism of the Disney apparatus—to roll our eyes as she does when Walt whisks her off to Disneyland, “the happiest place on Earth!” But gradually, the film uses its acerbic adult content to make us accept the childlike as the true key to psychic health: in a brilliantly perverse reversal, Travers’s smartness is the sour medicine that makes the Disney sugar go down.
A co-production by Walt Disney Pictures and BBC Films, Saving Mr. Banks is at once of Disney and outside it, and cleverly contrives to affirm the values of the brand while seeming to disparage them. It’s a homeopathic process whereby, in mocking itself, Disney defuses the critique of an ideology which we’ll end up embracing all the more. After all, if Disney values can melt a frosty old cynic like Travers, what can possibly be bad about them?
“There’s a child in all of us,” beams Walt—at which Travers sniffs: “Maybe in you, Mr. Disney, but not in me.” But we know that there’s a child in Travers, and a hurt vulnerable one who’s crying out to be understood. Does Saving Mr. Banks really believe in all this comforting-the-inner-child hokum, and are we expected to? The film may mock touchy-feely pop psychology, yet it also encourages us to bet on there being something in it. Just as Pascal proposed that we take a wager on the existence of God, Saving Mr. Banks asks us to take a wager on the old Disney magic.
And that magic lies in Walt ultimately knowing. The comedy is based on the irony of Travers’s resistance to Mary Poppins as a movie, her belief that Disney’s vision can’t possibly work. But all the things she most abhors are the very things that generations have loved—yes, including the dancing penguins. Her snootiness is magnificent—whether she frostily comments “I can assure you that Dick Van Dyke is not one of the greats” or tut-tuts about invented words (at which point a Sherman quickly hides sheet music headed “Supercalifragilistic…”). Like Hitchcock, the film is built on the inevitability of a particular film working out the way it did—just the way that the insightful Disney knew it would.
As Travers’s self-appointed therapist, Disney—through empathy and insight—gets to the bottom of her trouble, ascertains what her case history is really about. Rather than wait for the patient to produce her own cathartic insight, it’s Disney who produces the explanatory analysis of Travers’s book about a magic nanny taking charge of the troubled Banks children: “It’s not the children she comes to save, it’s their father—it’s your father.” The analyst unlocks the secret and allows the patient to free herself from traumas associated with her father—a trauma “cured” in the Disney Mary Poppins by having stuffy old Mr. Banks leave his office to go fly kites with his children.
But Mrs. Travers doesn’t undergo the normal process of analysis by which the patient pays the therapist. Instead, this is a strange reverse treatment, in which the analysand can only be cured if she accepts payment from the analyst—by selling the product of her trauma in the form of film rights. That enables Dr. Disney to transmute her childhood grief into joy for other children, as a movie. Reconciliation can only happen when the author renounces all personal claim on her work. That’s why “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is so symbolically important in this film—because Travers’s progress is about letting the kite go, rather than holding onto the strings and stopping it from soaring.
This view of things seeks to affirm the film industry’s greater wisdom by devaluing not just the author’s insight into her work, but the writing process itself. Unlike, say, Shadowlands and Finding Neverland, about C. S. Lewis and J. M. Barrie respectively, Saving Mr. Banks tells us that writing children’s fiction isn’t itself enough to resolve childhood traumas. You’re only truly free of an unhappy past once you’ve allowed it to become other people’s property on screen—for what’s the value of a book loved by some, compared to a movie watched by millions?
The film is smart enough to retain some ironic ambivalence. When Disney turns up on Travers’s London doorstep to tell her he’s cracked her mystery, he confides some of his own memories to her, about his father Elias and the poverty and snow of his own childhood. We’re invited to see him as the wise old sage sharing his own intimacy and—at the same time—as a cunning snake oil salesman playing Travers like a rube. But Hanks’s Disney never comes across as worse than a canny, somewhat sentimental old operator; there are no traces here of the volatile, fervently right-wing figure depicted in Neal Gabler’s 2006 biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
Above all, Saving Mr. Banks shows Disney as one who knows the human soul—and more importantly, a hot movie property. This is surely the first time (at least since Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful) that a studio boss has been affirmed as a psychoanalyst of peerless insight. Intelligent, glossily enjoyable, and yet strangely repellent (not least in its sugar-steeped color scheme), Saving Mr. Banks depicts cinema as a perverse nexus of capitalism and psychoanalysis. While I can’t say I actually enjoyed the film, I watched with some excitement—if only because I couldn’t wait to see what Slavoj Žižek would have to say about it.