Ah, the Swedish summer holiday – the best reason not to emigrate. I don’t think many other countries would tolerate four weeks’ holiday in a row, but it’s standard in Sweden, and exactly what’s needed after months of hard labour. In fact, four weeks can seem a bit short, especially when you’re back at work and can’t get hold of anyone because they’re on holiday.
My blogging ambitions during summer times are modest, but in view of the catchy song “Jolly holiday” from the Disney film Mary Poppins, it might be fitting to write about the film Saving Mr Banks which I caught up with on DVD a few weeks back.
My mother read the Mary Poppins books to us when we were children: I don’t remember much about them except the feeling of magic, all the more powerful because it contrasted with the dour personality of Mary Poppins herself. Consequently, I grew up despising the Disney film, which I’ve only seen once and that ages ago, because it showed a young, pretty and accommodating Mary Poppins in the shape of sweet-singing Julie Andrews. Saving Mr Banks has achieved its goal in wanting me to give the Disney version of Mary Poppins another go, but in many other ways it is problematic.
The film claims to tell the story behind Disney’s adaptation of the first Mary Poppins novel, where the novelist P.L. Travers (real name Helen Goff) was given script approval rights. As every review I’ve read of Saving Mr Banks has pointed out, the film isn’t honest: what we see is P.L. Travers slowly coming to terms with and accepting the Disney team’s vision of the film, while in real life she wasn’t pleased at all with the finished product and made sure Disney never had a hand in adapting one of her books again. The film’s story is a much better one: in fact, the real-life scenario would have made an indifferent film. Where’s the development, the story arc? Intransigent author remains intransigent, and as discontented with her deal with Disney as at the beginning? No, I can understand they didn’t make a film like that. What I do wonder, in view of the facts, is why they made a film at all.
The answer is probably because they wanted to go to town on the battle between two formidable personalities: P.L. Travers, not unlike the real Mary Poppins in her vinegary snappiness, and Walt Disney, a man with considerable steel under his genial exterior. Emma Thompson as Travers is the undisputed star of this film, but Tom Hanks does a good job of Disney, too. You can’t expect a Disney film to show Uncle Walt in anything but a kindly light, but you do get a sense of his toughness, in Hanks’s steamrolling manipulativeness as well as in his employees’ attitude towards him. There is terror on their faces when Travers insists on Mr Banks being depicted as clean-shaven: the request that he should have a moustache comes from “Walt himself”. When it comes to intransigence, Travers has clearly met her match. It reminds me about what Carl Barks said about Disney: that he always gave you the last word, and that last word was always “Yes, Walt”.
The premise of the film – that Travers saw her own father in Mr Banks, and that Disney got around her by making sure he had a redemptive ending – is a weak one, as also mentioned in reviews. The author’s father (according to this film at least) was an alcoholic dreamer, which means that the only thing he had in common with Mr Banks was that he worked in a bank. With an author as imaginative as Travers, there is surely no need to look for far-fetched autobiographical echoes. She defended her fictional characters – including Mr Banks –because she created them: there has to be no other explanation. Moreover, the flashbacks to Travers’s/Helen’s childhood weigh down the film, which would have been more enjoyable if it had been shorter. That said, young Helen (or Ginty as her father calls her) is played with pathos by Annie Rose Buckley, and the scene where the Sherman brothers’ “bank song” merges with a speech made by the drunken Mr Goff on Market Day in deepest Australia is very well made.
What’s extraordinary is that even knowing the facts have been tinkered with, and realising that the “saving flawed father” premise is weak, I was still left feeling more lenient towards Disney’s Mary Poppins than I’ve been before. No-one disputes that P.L. Travers did get script approval and was deeply involved with the film in its initial stages – though she had no power over the film editing – which means that, at some point, she must have accepted a young and pretty Mary Poppins. I saw the musical version of Mary Poppins more years ago than I care to remember, and there too we had a good-looking Mary, and many of the film’s seductively hummable songs. IMDB quotes Travers as saying of the film at one point: “It’s glamorous and it’s a good film on its own level, but I don’t think it’s very like my books”. Maybe this is the best way to view Mary Poppins in its Disney version: as a product that is separate from the book’s Mary Poppins, but good “on its own level”.