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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