Saving “SAVING MR. BANKS” (from #Sexism and the Deification of Walt #Disney)

Sticky-note ink drawing by me.

What a sentimental, oversimplifying, disrespectful, sexist, and at times nonsensical, mess, Disney’s “SAVING MR. BANKS” is.  I understand that, when telling a true story, said story needs to be simplified.  However, it was what was simplified and how it was propagandized that bothered me.  For starters, a wildly successful female author was distilled down to a caricature based on her nationality and gender.  What’s more fun to laugh at than a stuck-up woman from Britain?  Not much, apparently, since that’s where most of the laughs came from in this film.  But, I’ll get into more of this in a bit.

SPOILERS AHEAD.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

What was Wrong with “SAVING MR. BANKS”

To start, the story structure was confusing as hell.  The flashbacks that served only the most superficial of functions to try to explain how Travers became such an eccentric, annoying person plagued the entire film. Meanwhile, a much better structure kept being suggested every time we saw the film refer to the audio recordings Travers demanded be made of their development meetings.

These should have been used as the structure–unless they prove she wasn’t anywhere near as obnoxious as she is made to look in the film.  In which case, perhaps a more balanced portrayal of both Travers and Walt Disney would be in order.

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All of the acting was perfectly reasonable.  I found everyone’s choices believable and strong.  However, the casting of Travers’ father didn’t work for me, nor did the casting of the young Travers.  I really like Colin Farrell’s choices, but he seemed distractingly more handsome than the real person and the actor who plays Mr. Banks in the “MARY POPPINS” movie.  I don’t know why Travers would have been comfortable with such an incongruity and the film does not attempt to establish why Travers allowed the mustache to stay when her real father, at least in the movie, made it a point to stay clean shaven.

In fact, that brings up a very good point–both Walt Disney and Travers’ fathers were truly dedicated to their daughters.  The story structure could have reflected that parallel and made the film much better.

The actress playing the young Travers was fine, but looked nothing like Emma Thompson nor did they seem like the same people.  There are choices both actresses could have made (or direction that could have been given) that would have allowed the audience to see similarities between them.  There was one point in the story where I thought for a few moments that young Travers wasn’t even young Travers and that was why they cast the actress that they did.

I really liked the relationship between Travers and her driver, but I suspect that the driver was entirely fictional.  It’s usually the fictional relationships that are the easiest to write well.

The music was technically good, but practically all wrong for a historical dramatization and was also disrespectful to the woman who created one of the most successful and long lasting female characters in fiction.  The pizzicato string music accompanying the scenes where Travers is seen at her most eccentric encourages the viewer to share the opinion that she should be disrespected and laughed at.

Just a Spoonful of Subtle Sexism (actually, it was way more than a spoonful!)

This brings me to the sexism in the film.  Music aside, the lead female is seen as a snobby, eccentric, kind of “character” to be “humored” and not a person to be respected.  Travers is portrayed as someone to be “dealt with” so this “amazing,” “magical” film could be made.  Disney is portrayed as a benevolent deity who is simply trying to create entertainment for people around the world to enjoy. How could she say “no” to that?

Well, finding out why would have made for an interesting story, wouldn’t you think?  Sadly, this film focuses on how she came to say yes and not why she would say “no,” or why she never let Disney make another “Poppins” film after.

What the film fails to state is that Travers was a woman in a man’s world desperately trying to protect her creation from a man who wanted to buy up her very successful franchise and make buckets of cash off of it.  She was right to be protective.  She was right to be difficult.  Women simply were not as successful in Travers’ day.  Yet, no attention was paid to the fact that she was a trail-blazer–a female author who had created a female character so influential that the great Walt Disney simply HAD to own her.

It was kind of creepy how “absurd” the film made it seem that she wouldn’t want to immediately fall in love with the idea of being part of the Disney empire.  When she walks into her hotel room to find it covered in Disney merchandise, the mockery was made of her snooty, “British” negative attitude toward the iconic products and not of Walt Disney for thinking she could be so easily swayed.  The one part that the film gets right is when Thompson’s Travers wonders aloud if Walt thinks she’s a child.  However, that’s not enough to save this missed opportunity for a powerful film.

I mean, think about it–this could (and perhaps should) have been the story of a successful woman’s attempt to resist the manipulations of a white male corporate emperor.  Let’s face it–this was a man who, according to this film, grew up in poverty, and built an entertainment mega-corporation.  What kind of eggs had to be broken to build that omelette?  It’s another, more interesting story angle than any we get in this film.

But while Travers’ character was deconstructed to her basic snobbiness, Walt Disney’s had precisely zero flaws.  A god in an office who only seemed to get involved when his plan wasn’t going the way he had wanted it.

How I would have saved the script of “SAVING MR. BANKS”

First, ditch the flashback structure.  Such a structure can work, but it was very confusing to start the film with a flashback before we see what we are flashing back from and then flashforward again and then back, and so on.  And that first flashback was so short that it was very jarring to suddenly flash forward to, I think it was, fifty years later.  I’m not sure because the skip to 1961 was so sudden that I forgot what year the flashbacks were in.  Not that it matters, since all the flashbacks could have been cut down to a handful of single shots to establish what each one signifies for the character or scenes that take place in 1961 Los Angeles.

Using flashbacks is fine (in theory), but using them as a skeleton to hang the majority of your story off of can be tricky to pull off.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it done all that well.  However, the flashbacks, cut down to fifteen, or so, seconds each (just long enough to show their significance) would work perfectly well, I think.

Second, score the film so it’s not suggesting how silly or unreasonable Travers is being through the entire film.  Write her as someone being protective of her creations, not defensive.

Third, ditch the “reveal” that “MARY POPPINS” is about saving Mr. Banks.  When she calls Walt on not understanding that Poppins’ true goal is to save Mr. Banks, it should be a “duh” moment for the audience.  You shouldn’t put a plot point in the title and then make us wait for it in the film. Plus it would have been a great moment to show Disney as a human (aka flawed) character–he could apologize and seem legitimately humble.

Fourth, ditch the “reveal” that P.L. Travers is really an Australian and used a pen name.  The film does a terrible job of establishing why this is significant when, to the audience, it’s been obvious all along that she was Australian.  It also makes perfect sense that a woman would take a pen name to make it less obvious that she was not a man.  The film doesn’t even explain how Disney’s receptionist knows the “truth” about Travers nor how Disney finds out that she chose a pen name based on her father’s name.  The most ridiculous moment in the movie comes when Walt says, something to the effect of: “You must have loved your father very much to take his name as your own.”

This is probably the dumbest line of dialog I have heard in recent memory.

1) Don’t nearly all daughters get their father’s last name? And have their first name given to them by, at least in part, their father, whether they love them or not?

2) Of COURSE she loved her father because he was her father (as the vast majority of daughters do)!

So why is this being made so significant?  Does this mean that Sam Clemens hated his father because he chose to base his own pen name on a nautical term?  It’s stuff like this that made the film, at times, a nonsensical mess.

Fifth, hang a lampshade on the sexism.  Travers insists on being called “Mrs. Travers” not because she is a snooty Brit, but because IT IS RESPECTFUL.   Calling Mrs. Travers “Pam” belittles the name she has created for herself.  This isn’t about Walt just being “folksy” this is about his brand of Americanism harming the personal self-confidence and the public reputation of a successful woman in a man’s world–even today.  21st century audiences are meeting Travers not as a successful, driven female artist, but as a snooty Brit with “attitude.”

Sixth, be honest about the real life fact that Travers did not like “MARY POPPINS.”  “SAVING MR. BANKS” tries to pretend that she burst into tears during the premiere because she was so moved by how redeemed her own father had become in Disney’s film.  It’s my understanding that, in real life, Travers went to her grave disliking Disney’s “MARY POPPINS” film.  Why else would there never had been a sequel when there were a total of eight books?

Seventh, write Travers as a competent character–someone who ultimately knows what she’s doing.  She made her franchise of books successful, didn’t she?  The film should not treat her Yoda-level character as The Cookie Monster or a “Gonzo The Great” style freak.

The Medicine with a Sugar-filled Spoon Chaser (My Conclusions)

Sure, cutting all the flashback sequences down to 15-second clips would make the film MUCH shorter, but I’m not sure why it needed to be as long as it was.  Besides, the most interesting parts of the movie all took place in 1961.

What disturbs me the most about “SAVING MR. BANKS” and the way the real Walt Disney made “MARY POPPINS” and advertised it, was that I had no idea the film was based on a book until I had heard this movie was getting made.  Sure, I may have had an inkling that there had been a book, but I had definitely never heard of P.L. Travers or that there was a franchise, or that it was read by young girls around the world.

I think film historians should be very disappointed by this film.  Simplifications aside, the way Walt Disney was portrayed as a flawless human suggests that the Disney Corporation wants us all to believe that he was born of a virgin mother.

I also think fans of well-made films should be disappointed, since it really only feels well-made.  Try examining the film beyond how it makes you feel and you’ll notice all sorts of kinks in the armor and even overt pro-Disney propaganda (it’s soooo “funny” how Travers finds Disney merchandise annoying).

However, most of all, I think women (and anyone who is sick of women being made out to be anything less than men) should be disappointed by “SAVING MR. BANKS.”  With great subtlety the film belittles and demeans the female artist, portraying her as someone to be “humored” and “dealt with” and not at all respected.

Is “SAVING MR. BANKS” an entertaining film? Sure.  But you have to admit, doing it my way would have been better (not to mention less sexist).

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“GRAVITY” Falls Down, Can’t Get Up

Pretty much the emotion felt for the whole of GRAVITY
(pencil sketch by me).

For a long time, I avoided seeing the film “GRAVITY.”  Just about everyone said it was great and, usually when that happens, and I see the movie, it isn’t great.  Plus, from the trailer, it seemed like it was a one Plot-Point-Movie.  I hate PPMs because I feel like the writers have made very little effort to construct an interesting story.  All they had to do was come up with one cool idea to strand a character somewhere or in some situation and then let what ever natural obstacles exist do their job.

There was a movie a few years ago about an attractive, white scuba diving couple who find themselves stranded at sea without a boat or so much as a piece of wood to float on.  I didn’t see this movie either because I thought, short of flashbacks, how could this be anything but emotional-torture porn?  How boring and depressing to sit through something that can end in one of two ways.  They die or they don’t.  The former being completely depressing and the latter being completely unrealistic.

I would have accepted the former in “GRAVITY” but instead, what I got was the latter.  In fact, I checked how many minutes into the film I was when Sandra Bullock’s character definitely would have died if the film were as realistic as promised.  14 minutes in is where she finds herself tumbling out into space.  If you know anything about the physics of space and space-walks, it’s probably really hard to accept the reality of her surviving this death-summersault into space as anything realistic.

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How “GRAVITY” Really Let Me Down

When I first heard about this film (I think it was io9.com ejaculating about it–both literally and literarily), they said that the filmmaker was going for hyper-realism.  Their example of this is that, in the film, there is no sound in space!

Having no sound in space IS cool–I am so tired of scifi films portraying space as being capable of carrying sound waves.  So, I give GRAVITY some credit for not doing that.  But soundless space was pretty much where the hyper-realism ends.

That fourteenth minute isn’t even where the realism ends–it’s just where Bullock’s character definitely would have died.  The last bit of realisticness comes, probably way back in the third or fourth minute of the movie.

In the first scene of the movie, we meet our hero, the female astronaut played by Sandra Bullock.  We also meet the happy-go-lucky Indian astronaut who is having such a fun time in space, we just know he’s going to be the first to die.  We also meet a veteran space pilot played by George Clooney who is zipping around the space shuttle like he’s a teenager who just got his space-jetpack license.  I’ve since learned that the jetpack his character is using is identified as a prototype (probably in a single line of dialog that I missed) and is not the same one NASA actually used in real life shuttle missions.  Regardless, don’t waste fuel, George.  Come on.

What was that about Hyper-Realism?

So, a guy having way to much fun in space ends up dead (seriously, acting like that in space, he pretty much deserved it).  Then we have the fakey-fictiony jetpack.  But it’s a prototype, fine. I can accept that.  But should he still be pulling space-donuts with it in orbit?!?!  I mean, what if he needs the extra fuel later?  I mean, it’s _SPACE_.

WHAT IF SOMETHING BAD HAPPENS?

Of course, it does and later it’s a plot point that he runs out of fuel for the thing.  So…. dumbest space captain EVER.

And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.  There’s all manner of unrealism in this film–from really obvious crap like all the absurdly horrible, unlucky events of the film happening in one day, but also nuts-n-bolts stuff that would essentially make the film’s story untellable.  Yes.  Untellable.  That’s how inaccurate it is. For instance, when Bullock’s character is somehow able to get from the space shuttle to the ISS which orbits much higher than the shuttle usually does.

The thing is, this could have been explained by having her go about getting from shuttle orbit to ISS orbit.  They just didn’t bother with it.  The thing is, without this explanation, the story is completely unrealistic.

There’s even really nerdy science they got wrong like space station doors opening outward.  Why would you build any space-based structure with doors that open outward?!?  It’s SPACE, man,  atmospheric pressure is coming from the inside, pressing out, into the vacuum of space.  So, you know when Bullock’s character opens the door a couple of times in the film and gets whipped around so hard that it looks like she almost breaks her spine?  Yeah, that’s why no one builds them that way.  I mean, duh.

Would You Like a Side-Order of Sexism with your Unrealism, Sir?

One thing I really like to see in a movie is a strong female lead character.  In theory, for that reason, I should be supportive of the film GRAVITY.  It’s about space, which is great, and it has a female astronaut as the lead.  Awesome… on paper.

I had a similar problem with the heroes in “THE AVENGERS” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER.”  The problem is they’re just competent enough to survive letting a bunch of bad stuff happen to themselves.  To put it in another way, they’re so incompetent that it almost kills them.

The problem here is much worse than in the Marvel films as Bullock doesn’t even seem to have been properly trained.  Sure, sometimes she is able to fall back on training, but too many times she seems completely out of her element.  Real astronauts are trained for quite a few disasters and because of this training, they can remain completely chill in the worst situation.  They react to the shit hitting the fan with the casual grace of answering the phone.  Yet, Bullock’s character seemed completely not that.

Why was she even allowed into space if she didn’t know how to calm herself down when she started spinning out, into space?

So, how often do we get to see (allegedly) realistic space films with (allegedly) competent female astronauts in them?  Virtually never.  When we finally do, she’s an idiot.  Nice.

On top of that, she’s not just an astronaut who happens to be a woman, she’s a mom.  Or, was a mom.  Her daughter died and she’s still dealing with the emotional trauma.  When’s the last time you saw an astronaut movie where a male astronaut was still dealing with the death of his offspring?  When’s the last time you saw a movie where male astronauts were dealing with any problem but the ones at hand?

Once again, she’s not just an astronaut who happens to be female, but a female astronaut who has a serious emotional trauma in her past that she has yet to get past.  I am not belittling this as a “thing,” in general, I even think it would be a perfectly good plot element in the right film.  But giving a woman this kind of stereotypically female “depth” is distracting and does, in fact, make it less realistic that she was able to survive.  I mean, when guy astronauts get into trouble in movies, they focus on the problem.  They might mention their families but it’s usually in passing and they’re more likely to survive because of that focus.  So, why portray Bullock’s character as having these issues?

Then again, I guess it’s OK, since, you know how chicks are, rite?  All their baggage and emotions and stuff?

Pah!  Girls…

And that possibly subconscious homage to the underwear scene in “ALIEN” really stuck out to me.  If I’m an astronaut in space who is having a really shitty day, the last thing I’m going to do is climb out of my space suit and float around a space station in just my boxer briefs and a tank-top.  I’ve heard people say this sequence was not gratuitous.

Really?

When’s the last time you saw a male astronaut strip down to his tighty-whities and float about while ignoring obvious fires threatening his very life?  (Seriously–how the hell could she not see that fire?!?  She’s an idiot AND she’s BLIND!)  The point of that sequence was to sexualize Bullock’s character.  Why else would she be doing it?  That kind of behavior makes no sense in the middle of trying to survive a serious and obvious streak of bad luck in space.

Once again we see that her character probably shouldn’t have been allowed to go into space in the first place if she’s thinking like this.

“OH, sure–I just narrowly survived dying ten different ways in the last 60 minutes all related to space–which I am still in!  What I’d like to do is get out of this pesky, life-protecting space suit and float around with just my undies on!”

If this is what America’s astronauts are really like, I can actually see why NASA shut down the manned space program.  

How I Would Have Kept GRAVITY Afloat

First off, ditch the “worst day ever” structure that so many films use these days.  Films like this throw obstacle after obstacle at the lead characters because they think that makes for a good story. Sure, this story structure makes it exciting, but it’s hideously unrealistic and, in the case of GRAVITY, at least for me, just distracting in its absurdity.

A friend of mine who saw this film in the theater said she came out with back pain because the film was so intense.  I don’t think even the best films should leave their audience with back pain.  Especially when the film is a 90-minute-long one-trick pony.

What you do is give the character problems they can actually solve–and let them solve at least some of those problems without something else immediately going wrong.  Let Bullock’s character have a win or two over her predicament.  Give her (and the audience) a chance to hope so that it makes sense that she (and the audience) doesn’t just give up (as was my urge several times while watching the film).  Also, give her time between predicaments–time to enjoy her wins.  Let her character arc breathe and let us come to care about her as something other than an abstract human in perpetual trouble.

The truth is, I watched this movie in a way that no movie should be watched–on an iPhone.  I did it this way because I didn’t want to be biased by the effects.  I’ve had people tell me that this is an “effects” film and I shouldn’t get too hung up on story.  But remember back at the beginning where I talk about how GRAVITY was billed as a hyper-realistic film?  Well, it wasn’t. So what good are effects if the allegedly realistic story could never actually happen?  If it was a more traditional science fiction film, then they could have just had fun with it by throwing in aliens or completely new tech instead of pretending to get it right but fudging a shit-ton of details.  Not doing this way ultimately makes the filmmakers look really kind of stupid.

So, in a nutshell, how would I have saved Bullock’s character?

Put simply, I’d have her deal with problems realistically.  The problems she deals with in the film, all seemed perfectly plausible.  The solutions, however, were reached far too quickly and were far too contrived and implausible.  I’d let the audience see how competent she is at problem solving and allow the audience to get to know her in ways other than the “oh, shit! What do I do now?” mode she seems to be in for nearly the whole film.

I’d also have the film take place over a longer period of time.  How much story time do you think passed from the beginning to the end of GRAVITY?  I couldn’t tell, but it felt like it was almost real time.  It was probably more like two or three hours.  I would have it take place over a few days, at least.  Once she leaves the lower orbit of the shuttle she should be out of the way of the debris field and that should afford her, and the audience, time to breathe.

Of course, I’d never have written GRAVITY in the first place.  I don’t like space movies about how dangerous space is.  Essentially, GRAVITY is just a really boring version of the tales ancients told each other–the ones featuring sea serpents and mermaids and other dangers of space–er–the sea.

I’d have told a story about how going into space is humankind’s destiny.  Sure, the “space is dangerous” message would be there, but that’s the only message in GRAVITY.  I’d also have a female astronaut who knows what she is doing but because space is so dangerous, still manages to find problems that challenge her ability to survive.  I would want people coming out of my movie with the urge to go into space.

Hey, neat!  I would have written INTERSTELLAR.  (Not that it’s perfect, but if it wins no Oscars, I will be super disappointed.)

Time for the Ultimate Sadface for GRAVITY

The ultimate sadface for this film is that Alfonso Cuarón is held up like this amazing filmmaker.  What he made, in GRAVITY, is an amazing piece of art, but it’s not a good movie.  I felt that his CHILDREN OF MEN was also wildly overrated but I liked it more than I did this.  Why?  Because characters make your story go.  Without someone to get behind, feel for, and identify with, your movie will not stick to your audience when they leave the theater.  Who wants to make something that doesn’t stick to its audience?  Who wants to sit through something that doesn’t leave you with anything but back pains?

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