Saving Mary Poppins
December 23, 2013 § 1 Comment
Mary Poppins needs a hand this winter, and the internet, thanks to all that is snarky and determined to spread truth, is here to save her. The indisputably expensive new Disney film Saving Mr. Banks, as you’re likely aware, claims to tell the true story behind the making of the indisputably delightful old Disney film, Mary Poppins, based on the novels of P.L. Travers. It pits prudish, harsh, and critical Travers (Emma Thompson) against fun-loving monomaniac Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in the battle for the rights to produce the film. Disney woo-ed Travers for many years before securing her sign-off to make the film, and Saving Mr. Banks would have you believe that it’s because Walt finally got to the “core” of Travers’s psychosis in creating the character in the first place: daddy issues. It goes so far as to have Thompson beaming with pride at the film’s release, tears welling in her eyes.
But as you may also be aware, thanks to the diligent critics of the inter-webs, Thompson’s tears are a woeful misrepresentation of the true story that isn’t being told in the film: that Travers was devastated by the film. She fought Disney tooth and nail for five years, and you can bet that that fight was not just a charming sing-along by Richard and Robert Sherman and an escorted trip to Disneyland. It was surely much, much uglier. Walt Disney, to put it mildly, was not a nice man. He was a business man, one who insisted in his early films that only his name appear listed as animator, even when he had a team helping him. One who insisted on slapping his name in front of every title his studios put out, in case anyone forgot it. There would never be “P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins” — there would only be his, and in the end, though Travers fought him, she lost. That’s what this film is about.
But that begs the question — why tell this story? Aren’t there enough true stories out there that are, without revision, inspiring enough? But then, I suppose I could ask the same question (and believe me, I have) about why anyone would wish to completely gut and flay open Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, adding and removing characters and plot and calling it “Frozen”, rather than just telling the Andersen story as is, in all its beauty and charm? Honestly, why do I even need to ask the question.
But here’s where I re-direct you, patient readers, because as I am loathe to admit, I never knew that much about P.L. Travers or had actually read one of the Mary Poppins books before Walt Disney studios began broadcasting the trailers for this current piece of revisionist history. So instead of going in-depth, here’s the best of the internet’s Travers Defense team, with some interesting takes on the whole supercalafragalistic mess:
Dana Stevens points out the non-irony of Disney making a film about Disnifying in her review of the film in Slate,
Mia Warren at The Hairpin contrasts the literary Mary Poppins that she fell in love with as a young reader with the Julie Andrews version in “In Praise of the Real Mary Poppins”,
and Jerry Griswold, a personal acquaintance of Travers and scholar of children’s literature, describes her disappointment in the film and defends her against Disney’s mis-characterization in “Saving Mr. Banks, But Throwing P.L. Travers Under the Bus” (Bonus: here’s the Paris Review interview he mentions with Travers)(Extra Bonus: here’s What the Bees Know, Travers’s book of essays Griswold mentions that I am eagerly awaiting in the mail at this very moment).
Anyway, there you have it. Now, I love me some Emma Thompson. And despite Travers’s bitter misgivings about the film’s portrayal of her beloved Mary, I admit that Disney’s Mary Poppins is one of the most fantastic children’s movie musicals ever made, a wonderment of early film ingenuity and unabashed joy. I can’t speak ill of it. But Saving Mr. Banks? I have a feeling it won’t quite reach the classic status that the film whose making it chronicles has enjoyed for generations.
In the spirit of loving what we can and being realistic about the rest, I leave you with the most fun thing ever to act out in my parents’ living room from the ages 3-10, “Step in Time”. Enjoy.