It takes more than pixie dust to make magic.
The magic of story is a firmer, darker thing—an alchemy in which imagination and reality are bound together, where the disappointments of the past twine with the hope of the future. To create is both joyful and painful—a catharsis that can leave the creator twisted and torn, worn from a labor that gives birth to something precious and unique.
British writer P.L. Travers knows how to make magic with words. She fashioned Mary Poppins, after all—one of the most endearing and enduring characters in children's literature. By 1961, her four Mary Poppins books had made her a literary luminary, the pages pored over by millions of children around the world. And in the process of being created, Mary Poppins became more than a character to Travers: She became family.
Half a world away in Los Angeles, Walt Disney knows how to make magic, too. The entertainment mogul had become America's most famous storyteller—a magician who conjures dreams, architect of "the happiest place on earth." For years, he's taken the creations of others and given them new life in the movies: Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh. He introduced them to new wide-eyed fans, extending their fame and burnishing their brands. Yes, the characters change in the process; the magic of image and song is different than that of page and ink. But are the compromises worth it? Mr. Disney would say so.
For 20 years, he has pursued Mrs. Travers' most famous creation. "I love her, Pam," he tells her. "I love Mary Poppins. And you have got to share her with me."
Travers may well do so—as long as she approves of what Disney hopes to do with her. And that means Disney's team of dreamers must follow her vision.
Mary Poppins does not sing. She does not make up words. And she certainly does not cavort with dancing penguins.
Magic—the magic of story—is work. It can be hard and painful and excruciatingly frustrating. Sometimes it takes more than a spoonful of sugar to mask its bitterness.
And yet the end result can be worth the trouble.
Disney did make Mary Poppins … eventually. It wasn't easy; Travers made sure of that. But Saving Mr. Banks suggests that Disney's beloved Mary Poppins might not have been so beloved had Travers not had a heavy hand in its creation. After all, our best work can sometimes come from places of great pain and discomfort.
We see that dynamic in play in Travers' own personal story. Her trip to Los Angeles is emotionally painful, with the creative process stirring up memories and emotions long suppressed. "It's as if my subconscious is attacking me," she says. And yet the movie suggests that she's healthier for dealing with these long-dormant feelings—less bitter (if no less cantankerous). She begins to see the beauty of California. She takes greater interest in the people around her. She dances and even smiles.
We see this dynamic particularly at play in her relationship with her Disney-assigned driver, Ralph—an in-the-flesh version of The Simpsons' friend-to-all Ned Flanders who is, as such, repellant to the chilly Travers. But as Travers thaws, the two grow to know and appreciate each other. When she begins to build stick houses in the dirt (like she used to as a kid), he helps. When he tells her about his disabled daughter, she signs a book—and sends along a list of role models who overcame adversity. She tells Ralph that the girl "can do anything that anyone else can do." And when Travers flies back for the Mary Poppins premiere, it's Ralph—apparently unbidden—whom she finds waiting for her at the front of the hotel, ready to give her a lift.
Eventually Travers begins to understand that Disney doesn't just want to use her beloved creation as "another brick" in his empire. He has a personal connection with the book—and one of its prime characters—just as much as she does.
"Forgiveness, Mrs. Travers," Disney tells her. "It's what I learned from your books."
And while Saving Mr. Banks obviously refers to the gruff banker and father in the story of Mary Poppins, he's more than that: He's a tarnished father figure, reflecting both Disney's and Travers' own flawed dads whom they love and yet have been hurt by.
We hear a little of Disney's dad, who forced Walt and his brother to deliver papers morning, noon and night, and would take a belt to their behinds should they displease him. We hear much more about Travers' father, an alcoholic of boundless imagination who died when Travers (whom he called Ginty) was just a girl. Mr. Banks must be saved, then, to rescue in some way the memory of their own fathers—and who knows how many other dads whose children might watch the movie.
Disney's drive to make Mary Poppins also stems in part from his desire to be a good father himself. After all, he promised his daughters that he would make a Mary Poppins movie. "A man can never break a promise he makes to his kids, no matter how long it takes," he says. "That's what being a daddy is all about."
Travers in real life was something of an off-kilter spiritual seeker. Here we don't see much of that. Still, on the cusp of committing to fly to Los Angeles to talk to Disney, she tells her agent, "If I believed in hell I'd be sitting in its waiting room." In her hotel room, she appears to place a tiny Eastern religious statue on her nightstand.
Disney, meanwhile, declares that his whole life is a "miracle," and brags about a fake tree he created in Disneyland that has 3 million leaves. "They said only God could make a tree," he says.
Travers wants to make Mrs. Banks' first name slightly "sexy." When a bellman asks if he can unpack her things, Travers' quips that if he'd really like to touch women's undergarments, he should get into another line of work.
Travers' mother, in a daze, tries to commit suicide—walking out into deep water. (Ginty must swim out to save her.) There's talk of a man getting shot in the leg.
Crude or Profane Language
Disney utters one "g‑‑d‑‑n." God's name is more lightly misused four or five other times by him and others. We hear "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑" and "bloody" once each.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Travers' father is suffering from a lingering disease, which the movie suggests might have something to do with his drinking. Indeed, his alcoholism and sickness together cause him to fall off a stage, hurting his back and becoming bedridden from then on, sometimes hacking up blood. He often drinks from flasks or bottles—sometimes crying from shame as he does—and it's clear that his habits make it difficult for him to keep a job. When he's sick, he has his little girl go get him more booze, calling it his "medicine."
Travers sometimes seems uncomfortable with alcohol: When she walks by her hotel's bar and sees people drinking and talking, she looks as if she'd like to join in. Then, when she does go in, she orders a pot of tea and sips it alone. We do, however, see a mostly finished glass of wine on her room service tray. And when Disney comes to visit, she bolsters her tea with a shot of whiskey. "When in Rome," he says, adding some to his own tea. (Walt drinks other alcoholic beverages on occasion as well, including a "messy Scotch.")
Travers' nightstand is full of pill bottles. When Ginty's father is sick, her aunt comes to visit and brings with her a slew of newfangled medications.
Other Negative Elements
Ginty's dad irrationally lashes out at her and others. He brusquely denigrates a poem she wrote for him. Travers herself, in turn, can be cruel to the people she meets. And Disney seems to mislead her on the subject of the movie's animation.
For someone who writes about a flying nanny with a talking umbrella, P.L. Travers is as serious and earthbound as they come.
"Where is the heart?" she asks of the developing script. "Where is the reality? Where is the gravitas?"
She expresses disdain for everything branded Disney. When she finds her room stuffed with Disney stuffed animals, she locks them all in a closet and sets a huge Mickey Mouse doll facing a corner, as if being punished. "You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety," she tells it. She loathes, too, the philosophy espoused by Disney's products—that wishing can make dreams come true, that all you need is hope and magic, etc. Her life has told her otherwise. Mary Poppins is the antithesis, she believes, of everything Disney: She is a pragmatic, resourceful woman who desires to prepare her young charges for the world ahead—not train them to avoid it.
Avoid it as her father did.
"Don't you ever stop believing," her father told her as a child. "You can be anything you want to be." He tells her that they have Gaelic souls that can't be bound by reality. The world—their world—is in their imaginations, not the dirty place they can see and touch.
But her father lied. She learned it as she watched him waste away and die. To her, Disney is a dreamer just like her dad … filling kids' minds with so much unproductive claptrap.
Yet part of her father lives on in her, too. She creates magical places, just as she and her dad did together. She became what she wanted to be, just as he said she could. And as she lingers in Los Angeles—the City of Angels, the city of dreams—the crust around her soul begins to crumble. She sees the beauty of California's sunshine (where before all she smelled was "chlorine and sweat"). A ride on a Disneyland carousel reminds her of riding a horse with her father, feeling the wind in her hair. And when she hears the words of "Let's Go Fly a Kite," something seems to change in her.
With tuppence for paper and strings
You can have your own set of wings
With your feet on the ground
You're a bird in a flight
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite
"He mended the kite!" she says gleefully. "He mended the kite!" Mr. Banks has been saved. Her own father has been indirectly redeemed. And she has come to the realization at long last that it's possible to keep your feet on the ground and still fly.
Saving Mr. Banks has scattered content concerns. But it does fly. It has the power to touch both the Travers and Disney sides of all of us. It does not shy away from the sometimes sad realities of life while telling us we need to be prudent in our decisions, moral in our choices and careful in our entertainments. It has its feet on the ground, yet it tells us that it's OK to imagine. To dream. To patch up our broken kites and find a way to soar with them.