One might say the ultimate irony in the clash of cultures and approaches to storytelling exemplified by P.L Travers and Walt Disney’s tussle over Mary Poppins, is the Disneyification of the dispute: Uncle Walt’s empire enjoying the last word.
Stocked with the studio’s trademark sentiment and family friendly sanding down of rough edges, Saving Mr. Banks is ultimately a sweet and life affirming movie about redemption through art and the power of the imagination to “right” historic wrongs, but it’s impossible to sit through it without wondering what Travers would have made of the film’s conclusion, corporate PR, that she and Disney, despite their polarising worldviews, were ultimately two sides of the same coin and that a common cause was shared, namely stoking the imaginations of the young and young at heart.
The Disney thesis, which suits the studio very well, as it acquits them of Travis’ charge of vandalising her novels, Dick Van Dyke and all, is that the author and Uncle Walt ultimately realised they were on the same page. Both Travis and Disney had disappointing fathers plagued by inner demons, who neither child was able to help. In the heart tugging monologue in which Walt finally seals the deal with the obstinate author, 18 years after his initial approach, Disney explains that his life’s work, dismissed by Travers as “silly cartoons”, was a means of reclaiming a lost childhood and giving himself the happy ending that life had denied him. This, says Disney, is what Mary Poppins is all about; Travers rewriting her own family backstory; and with that, differences are temporarily forgotten and the movie goes into production, the two storytellers kindred spirits, if not creative soul mates.
This being a Disney movie about Disney, the first, in fact, to portray him at all, it’s not surprising that Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay adds a spoonful of sugar to what was, in reality, an often bitter and tooth-pulling example of creative differences. The dispute’s recast as a classic case of lost in translation with the audience friendly caveat that both parties were moving toward the same destination: a story that redeemed Travers’ Daddy proxy, Mr Banks, and delighted children in turn. It’s a movie that refuses to take sides, content that both Walt and Travers were good people with honourable intentions who simply misunderstood one another.
One suspects it wasn’t quite so amicable and the story ends with the film’s premiere, which conveniently absolves the filmmakers of having to touch upon the author’s lifelong dislike of the finished product (reportedly, an attitude that only started to soften toward the end of her life), but the sanitised version is nevertheless a very pleasant watch.
Emma Thompson’s Travers doesn’t shy away from the author’s alleged imperiousness, cantankerousness and anti-American snobbery, but by underwriting it all with a damaged childhood and a lifetime’s worth of buried torment, a sympathetic character is created whose dogged defence of her work is never marked as unreasonable or short sighted. Disney, in turn, played with a lot of homespun likeability by Tom Hanks, is recreated as a low key character, with an informal bent – naturally the opposite of Travers, who’s never quite the vulgarian of the author’s imagination. This same but different trope, though hardly risky storytelling, makes for a satisfying yarn: a movie that propagandises the facts to conclude with real world photographs depicting all concerned all smiles.
With the personal story well handled and divested of anything likely to sully the memory of either person, the only remaining question the movie poses is, what of Disney’s Mary Poppins? Is the treatment we see come to life worthy of Travers’ suspicion or not? The uncontroversial conclusion is that there’s more than room for both versions and one wouldn’t wish to live in a world where a movie as joyful as Poppins didn’t exist. Travers was never a full signatory to Disney’s unashamedly good natured and showy film, but only a full-fledged curmudgeon would dispute that it’s delighted generations of children, just as Walt predicted.