Saving Mrs. Travers

"Saving Mr. Banks" is a pleasant film with excellent performances, but is oddly constricted and restrained

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating: (3 Reels out of 5)

There are two wars being waged in Saving Mr. Banks. First, an external battle between the impeccably proper and British Mrs. P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and the handshaking bigger-than-life American Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) over the film version of the classic book series Mary Poppins. There is also an internal battle Travers wages privately against her own broken childhood that spills over the pages of her literary treasures. She fights the former in order to get her way in the latter. Mr. Banks is a pleasant film with excellent performances that has a little bit to say about the role of the imagination, but, similar its central protagonist, feels a bit stodgy—like day-old tea. It’s a good movie, but it is just a small asterisk next to the 1964 classic Mary Poppins, one of the greatest films in cinematic history.

P.L. Travers and Walt Disney are perfectly matched: both are strong willed and use their imaginations to work out their hopes and fears of life. However, Disney is a shrewd businessman and entertainer while Travers refuses to publish any more books. Despite her immense disdain for Disney’s world of pixie dust and undeserved smiles, he has money to give, and she needs it badly. Disney has been hounding her for twenty years hoping to get the rights to Travers’ books on a promise he made to his daughters. When he relents to giving her final script approval, she finally agrees.

Despite their arrangement, the story process is anything but smooth. Right from the beginning, Disney fills Travers’ hotel room with stuffed animals and fruit baskets thinking it will placate her, but only infuriating her even more (too bad—those early ’60s plush Mickeys are probably worth thousands today). Travers likes almost nothing about Don DaGradi’s script including the songs, the animation, and Mr. Banks’ mustache, which was personally requested by Disney himself. It seems as if Mary Poppins will never fly. “These characters are family to me,” Travers explains, “and I won’t have you turn them into one of your silly cartoons.” Travers is speaking literally; through a series of flashbacks, it is learned that she came from a very troubled home that included an alcoholic father and suicidal mother. Things only start to look up a little when her aunt Ellie comes to take care of the family.

As a film, Saving Mr. Banks feels oddly constricted. Thompson and Hanks are fantastic as the title characters—Emma a little more than Tom. Apart from its star talent, however, the film is restrained, claustrophobic, and a little slow. Ninety percent of the movie occurs on only four sets that are sparsely decorated, as if the producers ran out of money (but this is Walt Disney Pictures, so that is improbable).

Everybody is born broken by original sin, and humanity creates stories to help itself work out its problems. From Pandora to Osiris to Loki, ancient peoples have tried to make sense of suffering. This continues today in fiction. Tolkein wrote that fantasy is the highest form of art because it allows men to be a “sub-creator.” The difference between paganism and fantasy is that pagans worship their creations while fantasy writers understand their works are only symbols of a greater reality. And that includes Mary Poppins.

At first Disney doesn’t recognize this aspect of Travers’ writing, but neither does Travers appreciate the work of Disney. She thinks his creations are “silly cartoons” but Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, and The Jungle Book are Disney’s ways of working out his inner demons as well. A good example of this is the Missing Mother Syndrome that permeates almost every Disney film from Snow White to Frozen. Contrary to popular myth, Disney’s mother did not die when he was young, but it’s a great way to identify with a main character. We are all orphans separated from God. Travers, too, creates these stories to give the father she loved dearly the redemption he never found in real life. Disney tells Travers that sharing this pain will help rather than hurt her father, and even shares his own marred past with his father Elias. “Children will rejoice” when Mr. Banks is reconciled with Jane and Michael, he tells her. Only when she sees that he understands does she relinquish the rights to her work.

Peter Kreeft has observed that “Christianity has always been a little suspicious of the imagination.” The real Mr. Banks died an alcoholic estranged from his heartbroken daughter; is the happy ending of Mary Poppins a terrible lie? It is untruthful as a historical fact, but it is truthful as a spark of hope from an older and wiser Travers. It is her expression of forgiveness towards her father, and that is not a lie.

What neither Travers nor Disney understands is while imagination is good, real life is better. In his desire to make a world of happiness and boundless creativity, Disney neglected those closest to him. Travers never got married, but she did adopt one son later in life. Christianity is unique in being both a compelling archetypical story and amazingly true history. If you liked the Book, you’ll love the Real Presence. Life must be imagined and then lived. Live vicariously through yourself.

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About Nick Olszyk 201 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".