Each week I take a gander at our local cheap theater. These are movies that are close to being released on DVD or which bombed at the box office. Of my choices a few weeks ago, I never expected to see Saving Mr. Banks. While I loved Mary Poppins growing up I wasn’t particularly interested in how Disney made it into a movie. However, due to a friend’s influence and love of the film we ended up picking it up. I was enchanted by what I found Saving Mr. Banks…
You go into Saving Mr. Banks believing you know what the movie is about: a biographical drama about the adaption of a book into a movie. In literal terms that’s exactly what the movie is about. At heart though we are exposed to the souls of different storytellers. We are shown through the various individuals taking part in the making of Mary Poppins how the compatible and opposing spirits of creativity intertwine and conflict. Through their relationships, we are exposed to the passion that boils up or must be tamped down as these storytellers collaborate. If you want to get a sense of the creative process and the differences between a book writer and movie creatives this film is a must see.
The excellent cast of secondary characters (Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, B. J. Novak, Ruth Wilson and Colin Farrell) combined with the beautifully woven point of views were at the heart of my enjoyment of Saving Mr. Banks.
The Dreamer’s Spirit
These point of views start with one of the best additions to the story: the intertwining sub-plot where we learn P.L. Travers origins and the back history that made Mary Poppins’ story. Her life in Australia was a stark contrast to the setting of Mary Poppins. Here we meet, Travers Goff, Helen’s father who inspired her passion for storytelling. We too are drawn in by his dreamer’s spirit, enchanted by the power of whimsy and light that is the essence of the man. While he shows us that such a spirit isn’t a very good foundation for a secure life, he also illustrates how it can infect others and create whole new worlds.
It’s through Colin Farrell’s stunning portrayal that I bonded to little Helen and the heart that went into Mary Poppins. We don’t really understand the current P.L. Travers though until we glimpse her mother’s struggle with the reality of life as Travers Goff’s wife. (Portrayed with heartbreaking fragility by the wonderfully talented Ruth Wilson.) We see Helen, the soon to be teenager, is caught between two worlds, the real one where a child has to do adult things and the imaginary one full of breath and wonder. This point of view while not directly linked to the creative process grounds the storytellers’ process with a dose of the very real world.
The Writer’s Spirit
Contrasted to this view of the young, Helen Goff, is the very adult, writer, known to the world as P.L. Travers. Totally divorced from her past yet totally consumed by it we see the passion and angst in a writer’s spirit. We are shown through Pamela’s conflict with the other creatives how, through her parents influence, she has become a passionate writer who loves her character, a character that is in essence a part of her soul. In writing an inspiring character for the masses, we learn a writer has had to dig deep and pull from places thought laid to rest.
The Visionary’s Spirit
Saving Mr. Banks would not be complete without the man himself, Walt Disney. He is the visionary, the head of the creative machine that desired to see Mary Poppins on the big screen. We are shown how he and his people used P.L. Travers’ work as a jumping off point to create a character that would fit under the Disney umbrella. He set the tone of Mary Poppins and everything was run past him as the all-knowing eye of what worked within his vision and what didn’t.
We see him very much like a director today, the rudder of the creative ship, in this case of the entire Disney empire. It’s this visionary spirit that so conflicted with Travers’ vision. She was after all as much her mother’s daughter as her father’s disciple. We didn’t see great battles of words between Disney and Travers, no, he had his moments of persuasion but where we really saw the fight was in the trenches with Disney’s creatives.
It was a joy to see the songs coming together and so her nitpicking almost became…fun.
The Creative Spirits
For Mary Poppins the main creatives were the Sherman brothers who co-wrote the music and lyrics and Don DaGradi the co-writer for the Mary Poppins screenplay. It was their task to make a movie of P.L. Travers book and more than that, to make a film Walt Disney would love. They were to use all of their creative juices in envisioning their part of the film (Shermans the music and DaGradi the visuals).
With subtle shades the Sherman brothers embodied the bubbling joy that can’t be contained by creative spirits while they are stirring and concocting. They contrasted the dislike and hope that boils up when they present their newest creation and a collaborator then criticizes it. DaGradi illustrated many times with humor and chagrin the compromise that must happen in creative collaboration and the frustration when their originality is suppressed.
The Spirit of Inspiration
Last but not least is the unusual point of view of Ralph, Mrs. Travers driver while she was in California. He’s stung by her strident realism but we learn later enchanted by the world she provides for his daughter. Through his upbeat patience he allows us a glimpse at the soft center of P.L. Travers, the last vestiges of Helen Goff, hidden in the heart of the adult writer. We glimpse the spirit of inspiration that is the product of the creative process.
In the end, Walt Disney had to appeal to P.L. Travers, not as the man who has a vision of life filled with whimsy and delight, not as the father who wanted to keep the promise made to his girls, no, he had to appeal to her experience that parents aren’t perfect, yet they are still loved. Saving Mr. Banks may have fudged P.L. Travers history a bit but it didn’t exaggerate the spirit of the imagination. It truly is a vision of the creative process.
Did you see Saving Mr. Banks? Did you enjoy the creative spirits represented in the film? Are you a Colin Farrell or Ruth Wilson fan? What are your favorite roles of theirs? What do you think is the role of the writer’s spirit in movie making?
The blight on Saving Mr. Banks…
Emma Thompson is a huge draw for most movie lovers. She is a well-respected actress with many applauds to her name. I really respect her abilities, especially as a screenwriter, so her worth is not in question. Alas, she always makes me hesitate. I simply always struggle with her characters, for me she is forever Emma Thompson, the actress who writes screenplays. This “double gaze” is an odd problem to have, I know, and I challenge myself every time to derive my opinion with an open mind. (The sad fact is I really want to love Emma Thompson! I want to see her characters and not THE actress.)