Restoring Order and Instilling Hope: Saving Mr. Banks

This post originally appeared at Yet Another Period Drama Blog in 2014. 

"Mary Poppins and the Banks'... they're like family to me."
~P.L. Travers, Saving Mr. Banks

"Every so often, I encounter a movie that touches me in a very personal way."  That was how I was planning to begin this post, but for some reason I kept being bugged by the thought that I'd used that phrase before.  A couple of hours and lot of post-sifting later (peoples, there are a TON of words floating around on this blog. seriously, it might be in the millions.), I discovered that I used that sentence to open my review of Little Dorrit back in January 2012, so apparently minds-that-belong-to-the-same-person-but-are-separated-by-two-and-a-half-years think alike.   Who'd-a-thunk it.


When I was little, Mary Poppins was my favorite movie in the whole world.  My parents were particularly careful about what movies my sister and I were allowed to watch, and Mary Poppins, Little Bear, The Incredible Journey, So Dear to My Heart, Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan were about the extent of our repertoire from when I was four to seven.  Mary Poppins, though, was the be-all, end-all as far as I was concerned.  I knew all the songs by heart (still do), could recite practically any line in the movie (even all the jokes that went over my head) and worked out a complicated Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious choreography with my sister, using my Winnie the Pooh umbrella as a stand-in for Mary's parasol.   (Er, sorry, Mary Poppins.  Never, ever just Mary.)

So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard "they" were making a movie based on the making of the movie.  I mean, how cool is that?  The thrills were tinged with the slightest bit of apprehension, though-- I knew the story behind Mary Poppins wasn't entirely a happy one.  We had the old VHS tape with the behind-the-scenes video (it included actual footage from the premiere, the height of glamour to my young mind) and so I already knew a good bit about how Mary Poppins traveled from page to screen.  And I knew P.L. Travers, the author, was less than thrilled with the way the movie turned out.  So it was with some trepidation that I watched Saving Mr. Banks for the first time, because if there's anything that bums me out when watching a movie, it's a depressing ending.  And from what I knew of the facts, a depressing ending was heading the viewers' way with all the relentlessness of an uptight British author who wouldn't see things any way but her own.

(Please note that depressing endings and sad endings are not at all the same thing and I love a good sob-fest as much as the next Deep Person out there.  I was recently informed by a friend that her youngest sister speaks of me as, "Oh, I remember her! She likes sad movies!" Yes. Yes, my child, you speak the truth.)

Anyways.  Proceeding.  Let's take a look at this movie.  Bit by bit.

I'm a huge fan of instrumental versions of movie songs (musical overtures are THE BEST), so when the credits began with a haunting piano version of Chim Chim Cher-ee, I was pretty much hooked.  I can't say enough good things about this movie's soundtrack.  Seriously.  Thomas Newman's music is always gorgeous, but when his original work is combined with new arrangements of the Sherman brothers' masterpieces... well, let's just say it's one of my favorite movie scores ever.  Childhood favorite songs blended with lovely new pieces combining a soaring classical sound with a vintage swing vibe?  YES PLEASE.

(Um, please note that this review is going to be really long and really rambling and probably a lot more personal than many of my other reviews, so hang in there and stay till the end and I'll like you for always.)


Before SMB, I'd seen Emma Thompson in just two and a half films-- her brilliant 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the wittily hilarious 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing, and her (sadly short) scenes in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V.  (Okay, maybe that's more like two-and-an-eighth.)  Anyways, I knew she was a fabulous actress, but I was used to seeing her in more lighthearted, almost ingenue roles.  (Elinor Dashwood may be serious and sedate, but she's still young and in love and knows how to have fun.)  Which is why I was so blown away by her performance as P. L. Travers-- she was self-centered, embittered, tired and misunderstood and mean to people, and yet you wanted so badly for her to just win.  She was unreasonable, demanding, tactless and abrupt, unfriendly-- at times she was even acting like an angry person-- but Emma Thompson's phenomenal acting ability made her lovable all the same.  Because you could see that deep down she was still that little girl who lived in a world inside her head--  a world that was so much better and brighter and clearer than the real one, a world her father had helped her to set in motion, a world that started disintegrating when she lost him for good.  She still had a little bit of her childhood self in her, no matter how much she denied it, and she hadn't lost her ability to laugh.  Or cry.  Or listen to people and realize that they're not really out to get you.  Or, in the end, to forgive herself.

In short, she was practically perfect in every way.  (Yes.  I had to do that.)  And so, so relatable-- for me at least.  Grammar stickler, check.  Tea fanatic, check.  Bossy, check.  Insistent that the movie be like the book? CHECK CHECK CHECK.


"NO, NO, NO.  Mr. Banks does NOT have FACIAL HAIR."
"Tea is balm for the soul.  Don't you agree?"
"It is blasphemy to drink tea from a paper cup."
"And you [Mickey Mouse] can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety."

Tom Hanks does not look like Walt Disney.  I know it.  He only sounds sort of like Walt Disney.  I know that too.  And yet I was totally willing to overlook all that because he was so much fun.  Sneer at my vapidity if you choose-- I'm fully aware that I am deeply shallow.  But seriously, he was splendid.  "Nope, I brought you here for monetary gain.  Had a wager with the boys that I couldn't get you on a ride... I just won twenty bucks."  *ka-chow*

However,  I also liked how the film didn't portray him as this perfect guy who lived merely to make other people happy and had no vices of his own.  Showing his smoking habit onscreen was apparently pretty controversial, but I for one applaud the choice.  (I don't approve of smoking, obviously, but I did appreciate that they were being realistic about a man who's been romanticized a great deal over the last sixty years.)  And when he took Travers to Disneyland and handed out pre-printed autograph cards... well, that seemed a little bit cheesy and commercial, too, but I'm also glad they didn't try to sugarcoat that either.

Their relationship was so sweet, too.  (Um, not hinting there was any romance going on there or anything, haha.  Just a note for those who may have disregarded the spoiler warning and are reading this without having seen the film.)  P.L. Travers was so terribly prickly and cold and yet Walt Disney managed to make her laugh and smile and even ride King Arthur's Carrousel, for Pete's sake.  (WHY does a Disney carousel need two R's when all the rest of the world gets along fine with just one?  Huh?)  "Get on the horse, Pamela."

I realize that in reality, P.L. Travers and Walt Disney did not part friends.  The film doesn't even try to say that.  Yet I still loved how, despite their clashing ideas, they managed to share some truly special moments with music and similar memories and even strolling through Disney's dollar-printing machine.   Er, Disneyland.  We'll talk about this more in a few paragraphs, but for now I'll just say that I was okay with the way happiness prevailed when Disney was around, despite Travers' sharpness and frowns.  

Paul Giamatti as Ralph was definitely one of my favorite characters in the movie.  He was so warm and happy and friendly and upbeat... I just loved him.  The only American I ever liked... no, you may not ask why.

"The rain brings life."
"...So does the sun."
"Be quiet!"

Richard Schwartzmann and B.J. Novak look absolutely nothing like the real Sherman brothers.  Hair color, all right.  I'll give them that, but it ends there.  Does it matter?  DOES.  IT. MATTER.
Nah, not really.  They were absolutely hilarious and I still can't decide which one I liked better.  Robert is snarkier (and gets snapped at more) but Richard is adorabler ("wait, are we getting real penguins?").

"No, no, adorabler is NOT a WORD."
"I made it up."

Surprisingly enough, I didn't enjoy the flashbacks to Travers' childhood half as much as I did the main story.  You would think that a period drama nut would prefer the scenes set in the early Edwardian era to those set in 1960's L.A., but I must shock my readers now and again or life would get a bit dull, now wouldn't it?

Annie Rose Buckley was splendid as Young Helen.  (If you haven't seen the movie, all this name stuff is probably confusing you to no end... sorry.  :()  (Okay, a sad face combined with an end-parenthesis looks really weird.)  Sometimes child actors who are supposed to be particularly cute or pathetic can be really annoying, but she somehow nailed the combination of dreamy/imaginative and endearing-child-who's-going-through-a-lot-of-trauma without alienating the audience.  (Well, this member of the audience, anyway.)  Plus she's just adorable.  I loved how her kinky curls stayed the same through adulthood... okay, the adult curls were probably helped by bobby pins but hey, continuity.  Don't ruin my theories.

Colin Farrell as Travers Goff was... well, he was pretty doggone good.  If we're using the word "good" to mean "excellent at making me really really annoyed at him for about 80% of the time he was onscreen and really really sorry for him for about 18% and admiring his ingenuity and imagination for the other 2%."   Which may have been just what the filmmakers were going for.  I don't know.  I can't get inside anyone's head but my own.  

...No, wait, I'm a writer.  That's a stupid thing to say.

Anyways, yeah, Travers irritated me a LOT.  And yet he was quite pitiable.  But I just wanted him to PULL himself TOGETHER.  I know alcoholism is a crippling addiction-- I don't mean to make light of that.  Yet he had no desire to change himself, even though he seemed to know just how terrible a toll his drinking was taking on his family.  I won't pretend I was terribly sad when he died-- I mean, I felt bad for his poor daughters and wife, especially Helen of course, but you could see his death coming a mile away and he was making life miserable for everyone around him and... well... yeah.

(Probably some of my distaste for his character also came from the fact that he reminded me very much of Michael Landon and I'm not the world's biggest fan of Michael Landon.  Haha.)

I do wish this scene had been included in the final cut, though-- gives you a glimpse of the happier, more hopeful side of the Goff family.

Ruth Wilson as Margaret Goff was also very good in the part she played-- again, pitiable but not exactly my favorite character.  Though I did like and admire her wayyyyyy more than her husband.  She's a much more sympathetic character (look at what she goes through!) yet she doesn't seem to have much of a personality or backstory or motivation or any of that.  I'm not nitpicking, I promise-- but that suicide attempt scene seemed to just come out the blue.  At first I thought she was leaving her husband-- but then she didn't take her kids with her-- and then she just walked right into the pond and I was like, um, NOOOOOOOOO.  (Melody and I watched this movie together for the first time and it was about 11:30 at night at this part and we were freaking out.  Ha.  Good times.)  I wonder what became of her afterwards, too... one would assume she got her life back together once Ellie arrived and Took Charge, but we never do find out.  (In reality, Travers Goff died unromantically of influenza-- brought on by alcohol abuse-- and Margaret Goff took her three daughters to live in New South Wales.  But this wasn't mentioned in the film.)

So, let's go back to the 60's.  As I said, I preferred these parts of the movie-- the clothes were of course cooler in the 1910's but the overall feel of the story was happier and more interesting in Travers' adult years, and I'm a sucker for Happy and Interesting.  

Take Dolly, for instance.  She was a hoot and a half.  And her jello molds were fantastic.  Plus, she has some really quotable lines.  "She only wants to eat green vegetables and broth... I don't know what that is.  Oh, and she doesn't want any red in the movie.  ...At all."  She added quite a few lighthearted giggles to scenes that could have turned frustrating because of Travers' persnicketiness.  (Hmmm, 'twould appear that IS a word.)  

On the one hand, I really can see where Travers was coming from with all her fidgeting and do-ing and don't-ing.  When you create a story and give it everything you've got and write it exactly the way you see it in your head, I imagine it would be very very hard to see someone else exploring a totally different vision for it and changing it up.  I'm a pretty strict by-the-book purist for stories I haven't written-- I can't imagine how exacting I'd be if someone were making a movie out of something *I* wrote.  (Probably worse than P.L. Travers.  Heh.)  However, I do feel sorry for Don DeGradi and the Shermans-- putting up with Travers day after day, listening to her tear their creations to bits, couldn't have been easy.  I think they all handled her remarkably well, really. 

I love all the little references to the movie in the production/storyboard scenes.  Obviously you can't make a movie about the making of Mary Poppins without referencing parts of the dialogue or story, but nonetheless I felt a little squeal-y every time I recognized a tidbit from the finished film.  Like the debate about Mrs. Banks' first name, for instance. I didn't need IMDb to know that the names they consider all come from that scene with the penguins where Bert reels off the list of women who can't compare to Mary Poppins.  (And yes, I can recite the list at a rate of about 300 words per minute. "Iiiiiiiit's truethatMavisandSybil'avewaysthat'rewinningand...")

Feed the Birds has, for a long time, been one of my favorite Disney songs, period, and probably my all-time favorite Mary Poppins song.  I knew it was Walt Disney's favorite as well, so one of my first thoughts when I heard about SMB was that I hoped they'd include a scene in which he gets to hear the song.  And, of course, because this movie is practically perfect, they did.  I exercised my proficient tearing-up skills, naturally.  I don't know what it is about that song, but... 



If Feed the Birds is my favorite Mary Poppins song, then Let Us Go and Fly a Kite is my second favorite.  Definitely.  It's just so full of elation and glee and fun and it seeeeeends youuuuuu soooooooaaaaaring... ahem.  And by the time that song showed up in SMB, I was ready for some elation and fun.  Because we'd had scene after scene of frustration and long nights and painful childhood memories and Travers being a human cactus, and we needed a song.

And we got it.  And for just one glorious, happy-go-lucky moment, nothing in the world mattered except the piano and the singing and the dancing-- the dancing!  I'm so sorry, but she's dancing! Mrs. Travers, she's dancing with Don!-- and nobody cared whether "let's go fly a kite" was correct English or not.

Coming from P.L. Travers-- and from me, if we're being honest here-- that's a pretty big concession.

Even though this is a Disney movie, it couldn't end there with the kite song sequence, though.  I would have been happy if it had ended there, but deep down I know that wouldn't finish the story.  And in order to finish the story, there had to be more hurt feelings, more frustration, more storming out of offices and flying back to London.  But before Travers went back to her house with her giant plush Mickey Mouse (am I the only one incredibly touched by the fact that she did take it with her?) and her noticeably softened hairstyle (yay for little touches of symbolism!), she stopped to tell Ralph the driver that he was the only American she'd ever liked, and that difficulties can be overcome and his daughter Jane could be anything she wanted to be.

Hang on, there's something in my eye.

And then the film production people messed with reality, because in real life Walt Disney didn't catch the next plane to London and follow Travers to her home so they could have a heart-to-heart.  Prosaically, he just picked up the phone and called her long-distance.  But-- and we'll get to this in a moment-- the concept of him going all the way across the ocean to have this conversation with her was very important, and so I think it was a wise storytelling choice.

"Because it's not the children she comes to save.  It's their father.  It's your father."

Fathers and their children are the theme of this movie, no bones about it-- though I'll admit it took me until the third viewing to realize it's Travers Goff who's reciting the opening voice-over lines.  "Can't put me finger on what lies in store... but I feel what's to happen, all happened before."  Walt Disney and his father, Helen Goff and her father, Jane and Michael Banks and theirs... they all had difficulties.  Jane and Michael's father's story grew out of the reality of Helen Goff's own father, with one little tiny change-- Jane and Michael's father was saved in the end.  Mary Poppins came and fixed everything when Aunt Ellie wasn't able to.

And that was the heart of the story.  The part that mattered.  The part that, finally, Walt Disney understood.

"Give her to me, Mrs. Travers. Trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear that every time a person goes into a movie house, from Leicester to St. Louis, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him and his kids, they will weep for his cares, and wring their hands when he loses his job. And when he flies that kite... they will rejoice. They will sing. In every movie house all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, 
George Banks will be honored. 
George Banks will be redeemed. 
George Banks and all he stands for will be saved."

After that one revealing moment in Travers' prim London sitting room, the rest of the film seems to go by pretty quickly.  Production wraps, royalties are paid, Travers begins working on a new book and hires her maid back again (much to the amusement of her lawyer, who-- did I mention?-- is none other than Wilmott from Jeeves and Wooster.  Fun fact of the day for you.)  And then the film premieres, Travers comes back to California despite not being invited (I was cheering her on the whole way :D) and, dressed in a lovely white evening gown and a wrap I can only imagine she swiped from a hospital operating table, she goes--with Ralph!-- to see Mary Poppins on the big screen.

I knew, before I saw SMB, that P.L. Travers was notoriously displeased with Mary Poppins.  I knew that she refused to talk much of it in interviews later.  I knew that she reportedly left the theatre in tears.  And yet I watched the final scenes of the movie hoping desperately that there would be a happy ending anyway.  That she'd hug Walt Disney and tell him the movie was perfect.  That Jane would somehow be able to walk again.  That Dick Sherman would get his live trained penguins.

None of that happened.

Instead, P.L. Travers sees her creation-- and Walt Disney's-- living and breathing and talking and singing in the theatre.  And she sees the family, at the end, running off to go fly the kite, slang possessive verbs thrown to the breeze.  And she starts to cry.

Not because she hates the movie.  Not because she finds it a travesty.  But because it ended as it should have.  Because Mr. Banks was saved.  Because the heart of her story was preserved.  Because her father was, in some small way, redeemed.

And also, ostensibly, because she can't abide cartoons.

Perhaps that was not really why P.L. Travers cried at the end of Mary Poppins.  Perhaps, in reality, she didn't derive satisfaction from seeing Mr. Banks get his happy ending with singing and dancing.  But the stickler in me, the one who insists on having everything by the book no matter what, is okay with that.

Because when you tell a story, you don't always stick to facts.  That's what storytelling is all about.  Fixing life up a little bit with imagination.

"George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that's what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again."

As a storyteller, that quote resonated with me more than any other line in the film.

Instilling hope.

That's what I want a story to do.  Sure, I want realism.  I want a sense of "being there."  I want a good plot and relatable characters and a good moral message.  But ultimately, I want to use words to instill hope in people.

The ending of Saving Mr. Banks, a movie about storytellers and love and families and song and persnickety authors and beloved children's movies, instills hope.  For me, anyway.  For the hyperactive four-year-old who sat enthralled in front of the 11-inch television set watching Julie Andrews sing and dance and be practically perfect in every way.  For the bookworm eight-year-old who decided she was going to be a writer someday, plain and simple.  For the frustrated sixteen-year-old who wondered if maybe the stories in her head, happy-ful and everyday and down to earth, weren't worth writing.  

But a story that's happy-ful and everyday and down-to-earth is worth writing.  And reading.  And loving.  Because a story can instill hope.  

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