January 13, 2014

January 13, 2014

In My Opinion: Saving Mr. Banks

Anything you can document, the BBC can document better. I learned this recently when I saw The Secret Life of Mary Poppins* (available on YouTube here) a few weeks before I saw Saving Mr. Banks. To be fair, each has its merits, but I’ll take the unvarnished truth over wishful confection any day, even when the wishful convention features Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. It seems fitting that a movie about creating the “Disney version” of Mary Poppins would in fact be a Disney version of P.L. Travers’ life, though, doesn’t it?

The film is a bit of a frame tale, simultaneously about the travails faced by Disney (both the man and the corporation) while adapting the Mary Poppins books** for the screen and about the troubled childhood of author P.L. Travers. Let me tell you, the fact that she was actually Australian was the least of this woman’s worries.

Though the thesis of SMB seems to be “Not even a cranky old lady can resist the charms of Disney,” a fair bit of time is spent flashing back to episodes involving Travers’ alcoholic father in an attempt to explain the source of the crank. The documentary didn’t focus as much time on her childhood, so I can’t attest to whether some, none, or all of the events shown actually happened. I am pretty sure, though, that Mary Poppins was unfortunately NOT inspired by an actual person. I believe Travers herself said that Mary just flew into her head one day.

In addition, no time is spent on Travers’ adulthood. DID YOU KNOW that she was probably bisexual? DID YOU KNOW that she decided which of a set of twins to adopt by consulting an astrologer? DID YOU KNOW that she didn’t tell her son that he was adopted, nor that he was a twin? You would if you’d watched the documentary. Nothing about that in SMB, though I read that a son plotline was filmed and ultimately edited out.

To me, the fascinating paradox of P.L. Travers is that such a mixed-up, unhappy, un-British woman could create the stereotypical happy British family. The books, and then the movie, defined Edwardian domestic life in the minds of millions of kids, myself included. You got your nanny, you got your cook, you got your Katy Nana, you got your walks in the park, you got your sidewalk chalk drawings, and you got your kite flying. Yet there’s little evidence Travers herself got any of these.

None of which means SMB isn’t a pleasant film. I found myself tearing up right alongside the rest of the (mostly elderly) crowd. I laughed at the funny bits. I cringed at the cringey bits. The mouse house knows what it’s doing when it comes to human emotion, and the knockout cast (so many fabulous people even in the bit parts) didn’t hurt.

But it’s not the full story. For that, you need the documentary. It’ll better inform your view of both the woman and the books (much darker than the movie). Disney is good, but don’t forget the BBC.

* Presented by Victoria Coren Mitchell, who hosts my favorite game/quiz show, Only Connect, and whom I can only aspire to be.
** Yes, Mary Poppins first appeared in book form. Multiple books, even.

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