Saving Mr Banks – Disney’s unapologetic hagiography v’s the critical thinker. (Film Review)

Saving Mr Banks is not the first film to shamelessly re-tell history through the eyes of a victor, nor is it the first film to reduce a person of brilliance and talent to petty details that render them unrecognisable, nor is it the first unapologetically capitalist venture to use the precision timing of advertising acumen coupled with the shameless sentimentality common to all propaganda films to hawk its cheesy wares; but it is the one we have on the table at the moment, and therefore it needs to be examined for what it is by the rational film viewer still making some sort of desperate reach for their critical thinking faculties.

This is the central problem at the heart of Saving Mr Banks, and one that Disney is as aware it poses as it is confident in its ability “to produce and spread fertile messages that, once sown, will germinate in large human cultures.” (see note below)

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Central to the relationship between Disney and Travers is the interesting question of intellectual capital, the spirit of the word being greater than its meaning and the legalities behind who owns IP and what exactly is signed over once it has changed hands. Travers fear that ‘Mary Poppins’, a literary figure she laboured over that represented a new kind of way with children would be transformed into a Disney caricature was well founded given Disney’s unapologetic abuse of its source material, an example of which Travers lived with in the transmutation of her hero J.M Barrie’s book ‘Peter and Wendy’ into the cartoonish fantasy Peter Pan; this disrespect of source material we have seen recently cemented in the film Frozen, rendered completely impotent in light of the complexity of the Hans Christian Anderson fable that’s very fabric defied “Disney-fication.”

Despite what Saving Mr Banks states, she signed over the rights in the end for two reasons; to secure the future of her grandchildren who had little, due to the alcoholism of Travers adopted son, and because she was given final creative rights. The Disney Corporation, of course, were happy to hand over the cash (the nail in the coffin of any moral argument she may have) and were also happy to swindle her out of her creative rights, a point muddled to disappearance in the film. Travers adopted son, and his twin are both recently deceased, their timing impeccable given Disney’s need to rewrite the P.L travers story in light of the fiftieth anniversary, as there is no longer a formal estate nor an interested party to defend her.

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Saving Mr Banks – subtext, saving P.L travers, but actually saving Walt Disney – is a film that depends heavily on a distortion of its two primary characters, Walt Disney and P.L Travers. It’s no surprise that the greater of these alterations appears to be P.L. Travers far too beautifully played by Emma Thompson, as a sort of living embodiment of Mary Poppins herself, an embittered old spinster too proud to confess her emotional walls come from a family tragedy rather than from the intellectual superiority she projects in the face of all that American sunshine. Gone is the bohemian bisexual actress, good friends with W.B. Yeats and living with the Hopi nation in her quest for a deeper spirituality. However, the larger transformation is surely reserved for Walt Disney himself, the man who refered to the tower of dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a “nigger pile”, and who batted away serious accusations of antisemitism by giving money to Jewish charities throughout his life. Almost every one of his cartoon children’s films in the 1940’s have racist undertones, and it was at this time that he started to approach P.L Travers for the rights to her book. Her refusal makes perfect rational sense, as do her hopes of creating something worthy with Disney twenty years later, if only he would listen to her. Saving Mr Banks has the additional appeal of being originally written outside of the Disney studios (by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith), starting in 2002, but not being recognised by The Disney Corporation until 2011, who considered buying the project out or producing it themselves, eventually going with the latter when the script was deemed appropriately favourable to their agenda – Allan Horne going as far as to cite Steve Jobs with the now (in)famous ‘brand deposit’ comment. Ian Collie, the original producer (and still credited as one) knew from the early drafts of the 2002 script that Disney was the ‘elephant in the room’ and that in order to make the film properly, Disney’s approval would need to be sought, so it is no surprise that the film panders shamelessly to the Disney brand.

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And so at the end of all this carry-on is the central question, still unanswered, about the role of the thinking viewer in all of this. P.L. Travers hasn’t just had her beautiful book Disney-fied, her entire life has now been swept up in Emma Thompsons toe tapping and Tom Hank’s eye twinkle, the product of the Disney machine. In August 2014 the shelves will be brimming with the fiftieth anniversary copies of the Mary Poppins DVD, that you can be very sure will be sitting side by side with the Saving Mr Banks DVD, not the original book. P.L. Travers’ wishes have not just been ignored, they have been aggressively annihilated to an extent she never could have imagined possible. Her books are still in print, still read and still loved, but unquestionably diluted by their dissimilarity with the film. The question remains, do we encourage our children to read P.L Travers, or do we rush them toward the film? Do we encourage them to read J.M. Barrie, or do we rush toward the old Peter Pan? In light of J.K Rawlings vice-like grip on Harry Potter, the backhanded sweep of P.L. Travers is a historical accident made at a time when writers didn’t have good lawyers, but how do we make up for it and do we even need to?

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We all love Mary Poppins, the film, and we understand it to be imporant, beautifully made and progressive. How much of this is Walt Disney and how much is P.L. Travers is no longer a mystery, because the Disney machine has provided us with the easy answer we are looking for. At the philosophical heart of the battle for Mary Poppins lies the battle for the soul of the child, or rather, the soul of the parental influence over a child. Disney has always offered parents the opportunity to plonk a child in front of a film; a film they can be sure won’t show smoke inhalation, won’t have any swearing and will safely maintain conservative stereotypes. P.L Travers wrote a book that encouraged children to think for themselves, to embrace discipline and learn that the world wasnt always an enchanting place. Her message is difficult, her medium is difficult and at its core, it is a message of the importance of sane, focused, loving adult interaction with children.

Given all of this, why is it still so hard to know what to do?

Note – the definition of propaganda films is taken from:  Film Propaganda and American Politics.  by James Combs. New York: Garland Publishing.

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