Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Spoonful of Sugar

Karen and I saw "Saving Mr. Banks" before Christmas. While I enjoyed it at the time and thought some of the performances were terrific, it's been gnawing at me since. My opinion's faded from "That was pretty good!" to "That wasn't really very good at all," and I think I've figured out why.

It isn't entirely the film's historical inaccuracy. Grown-ups know that movies about actual people and events are interpretations. Stories need character arcs, crises and resolutions that real life seldom provides. Writer Harlan Ellison worked up a 10-minute dudgeon about the film; while I love Mr. Ellison's writing and raging, I can save you 10 minutes and sum up: "It's bullshit."

In particular, Ellison's offended by the movie's invented emotional catharsis as author P.L. Travers watches "Mary Poppins" on the big screen and weeps. In reality, she wept because she thought Disney had realized her worst fears and ruined her book. Mrs. Travers hated the movie the rest of her life.

Exactly what she was afraid of. By the way, "Saving Mr. Banks" makes much of Mrs. Travers's unreasonable demand that the movie not use the color red. Look, there's red!

It isn't entirely that a Disney movie about Walt Disney is the worst sort of self-serving hagiography, which asks us to sympathize with a giant corporation browbeating an independent writer to surrender her prized creation and literary legacy. As an independent writer type myself, losing control of my stories and characters is a nightmarish possibility that I've seen happen to people I know. My sympathies are with Travers. On the other hand, Travers signed the papers after tough negotiations won her more concessions than most writers would have gotten. Millions more copies of her original Poppins books were printed and sold. Disney made her rich and Travers wept all the way to the bank. In the long history of ripped-off creators (including Siegel and Shuster, who sold Superman for $130), Travers did all right for herself.

I think what's eaten away at me is the movie's defamation of Travers as a writer. Flashbacks to her Australian childhood show us that every detail of "Mary Poppins," from the nanny's parrot-handled umbrella and bottomless carpet bag to great swaths of dialog--came verbatim from her experience as a girl. Now, I don't know. I wasn't there. Maybe Travers's alcoholic father really did sniff the air sagely and intone, "Winds from the east, mist comin' in, like something's a-brewin', about to begin," just as Bert the chimney sweep does at the start of "Mary Poppins."

I doubt it.

Maybe--just maybe--Travers actually had the intelligence and imagination to make stuff up. Because that's what writers do.

In building its superficial psychological profile of Travers, "Saving Mr. Banks" shows her as little more than a stenographer, transcribing events she witnessed as faithfully as a court reporter. That's the lie that galls me. It's too glib and reductive. Too cute. That's not how writing works--not even journalism and certainly not good fiction writing. The movie gives Travers a prickly personality with some sympathetic softness and essentially seems to like her, but at its core, portraying her process and identity as a writer, it grievously insults her. Travers and her Poppins books were better than that.

I think that's why I've turned on "Saving Mr. Banks." Bad enough that it lied about Travers, but it also lied about writing and disrespected her as a writer.

Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, and P.L. Travers at the "Mary Poppins" premiere, which Travers really did crash.

A few random thoughts on "Saving Mr. Banks":

I've joked elsewhere that I'm angry at the movie because it co-opts my own analysis of "Mary Poppins" that it's not about the children, it's about their father. Mr. Banks was the one Mary Poppins came to help. He's the only character who grew and changed. I always considered this a nice example of how the movie works on two levels: children identify with Jane and Michael, while anyone old enough to feel the weight of responsibility and regret identifies with Mr. Banks.

One of these characters survived a crisis during the course of the story. Hint: it's the one with the messed up collar and a hole punched through his hat.

I was always proud of this insight and now resent that it's become the main plot point of a major motion picture. Because that makes me less special.

As a Disneylandphile, I paid close attention to the scenes set in the original Magic Kingdom. The movie obviously shot at the actual location, but efforts to rewind the clock to show Disneyland as it was 50 years ago were mixed.

The movie smartly kept most of the action at the front gate and Main Street, which have changed the least. No set dressing could cover the brick entrance plaza that replaced the original bare concrete, but the filmmakers chose camera angles that hid recent radical renovations outside the park gates. The architecture of Main Street is basically unchanged, and a few vintage signs convincingly took us back in time.

In one long shot down Main Street I'm pretty sure I spied the "Partners" statue, a memorial to Walt Disney that wasn't installed until 1993. How odd to see Tom Hanks portraying the dead guy down at the end of the block. It's a split-second glimpse, but one that could've/should've been erased with a bit of post-production magic.

Shouldn't have been there.

Fantasyland, where the movie shows Disney and Travers taking a merry-go-round ride, presented a real problem. The entire area was completely renovated in 1983. Except for the back of the castle, none of it looks like it did in the 1960s. The filmmakers wisely focused on Hanks and Emma Thompson on the King Arthur Carrousel while shooting the background as an unfocused blur. Given what they had to work with, I thought that was a good, unobtrusive solution.

As a child, I loved the "Mary Poppins" movie. In fact, it may have been the first movie I ever saw. We had the soundtrack record (pretty sure I still have it out in the garage) and played it again and again. "Saving Mr. Banks" does provide a sense of its behind-the-scenes creation, vetted and vouched for by songwriter Richard Sherman, who was portrayed in the movie by Jason Schwartzman and spent many days on the set (here's a nice interview with Schwartzman in which he talks about working with Sherman and taking great pains to learn his piano-playing style).

That's seductive, seeing how something you love got made, particularly in an era you have tremendous nostalgia for. I left the theater feeling as warm and fuzzy as if I'd just spent a couple of hours with TV's Uncle Walt. But Tom Hanks isn't TV Walt, and TV Walt wasn't real-life Walt. The more I mull on it, the more I think "Saving Mr. Banks" overreached, and its shortcomings outweighed its considerable charms.


Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

Oh dear- sounds like they've oversimplified things grossly to crank out this film too bad. At least they didn't make it a musical. (They didn't, did they?)

For the record, I too am bugged by anachronisms like the one you pointed out. Especially ones that would be easy fixes.

Brian Fies said...

Nope, not a musical (except to the extent we see the Sherman brothers composing). Makes me think, though: maybe it should've been an animated musical, just to make Mrs. Travers spin faster in her grave.

Marion said...

Nothing could make you less special, Brian.

Brian Fies said...

Aw, gwarsh!

Mike Peterson said...

This is where the difference in our ages matters. I was already a young teen when the movie came out, and one whose mother had read him Mary Poppins stories as a wee fellow. I thought the movie was an okay movie, but it wasn't about Mary Poppins any more than Disney's vision of Pooh had anything at all to do with Pooh or Disney's vision of Swiss Family Robinson bore any resemblence to that book.

When I heard this movie was being made, I was gobsmacked. Having done it was bad enough, but to brag about it? Dear me.

I agree Travers made money in the end, but it's not like her books were plucked from obscurity, after all. Wasn't worth it, and she appears to have known that, once it was too late.

As a writer, I'm so used to having the process insulted that I'm numb to it, but, yes, it seems in this case like further justification for ignoring her opinions and wishes.