I’ve seen Saving Mr. Banks two times now. Both times I really enjoyed it. But then again. I’m a Disney fan.
I’m not a fanatic. But I’m a fan. I went into the movie skeptical, because I’d heard so many negative things about it. I’d heard about how it whitewashed the conflict between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, making him look like a hero, and her unreasonable. I’d heard that the flashbacks to Travers’s childhood in Australia were clumsy and emotionally manipulative. I hadn’t heard anything about the part of the movie that I was most looking forward to, the performances of Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as Richard and Robert Sherman.
Here’s the thing that I figured out about all of that. The movie does have those flaws. But, the people who pointed them out clearly aren’t Disney fans, and probably don’t get the point of Disney.
Disney is all about getting pixie dust in your eyes while it paints over the world with a brush of magical nostalgia to create a memory of a world that never existed. There is no real place like Main Street, U.S.A. but when you walk down the middle you still feel that it’s the heart of America and the heartbeat of a holiday.
Walt Disney was a brilliant man and a talented artist. But he was a man. And at that, a man of his times, so whenever people say, “Disney was a racist,” “Disney was an anti-semite,” “Disney was a sexist,” and “Disney was a right-wing nutjob who wanted us all to live in future pods in the Florida swamps!” I say, well, yeah, I mean, except for the whole he wanted Epcot to be his weird Capitalist Libertarian Utopia those are fairly run of the mill characteristics for a powerful white man from the first half of the twenty first century. (Also, to quote my friend Kevin, “he just wanted a wholesome family community near the park. It was about land development…with a slight fascist undertone…”) It doesn’t really take away from the fact that what he built has employed thousands if not millions of artists over time and brought a little joy and light into the lives of the people that enjoy that art.
So how does that effect my interpretation of Saving Mr. Banks? Well, see, the film is the Disney treatment of those events. So yes, they are made sunnier and simpler than they actually were, and yes, it’s emotionally manipulative. But that’s the point. The movie even outright says that. As Walt and Mrs. Travers discuss their fathers in her parlor in London. (Did this happen? I don’t know, nor frankly, do I care. It’s a beautiful scene.) He explains, what to me, sums up the philosophy of Disney as an entity, if not as a man. Basically, he says he’s tired of remembering his difficult childhood, so instead he’s going to idealize it. Even if he knows the truth, he can still enjoy the idealization, that’s the point of telling stories.
I once told a professor that I wanted to be a writer because I’d grown too old to have imaginary friends. Saving Mr. Banks makes the case that Mary Poppins was P.L. Travers’s imaginary friend and Mickey Mouse was Walt Disney’s. It’s as simple as that. We see the origins of Mary Poppins in P.L. Travers’s father and aunt, the ghosts of her childhood. What created that imaginary friend was one woman reconciling these two people who effected her profoundly.
At it’s heart, Saving Mr. Banks is a story about storytelling, so of course thing get twisted. Walt says to Mrs. Travers, “Aren’t you tired of remembering it that way?” That’s the current incarnation of Disney being tired of remembering that one of their most classic treasure was made at the expense of one woman’s artistic integrity.
But if you let the pixie dust get in your eyes, as the film version of Travers does at least twice (when she hears “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” for the first time and as Mickey walks her to her seat at the premier), you can see a different world, the one that never existed except in the imagination of one man.
Oh and Schwartzman and Novak were enchanting, particularly Schwartzman. I want a spin off movie about how much the Shermans hated each other, where Dick winds up looking like the good guy because Jason Schwartzman is so damn charming in this part.