(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
Previously on Unshaved Mouse: After learning that he’d been secretly manipulated into destroying the career of Don Bluth, Mouse swore revenge against his former mentor Walt Disney, promising to review “The Worst Disney Movie”. However, it seemed that the two had finally buried the hatchet after Mouse reviewed Big Hero 6 i
n an attempt to boost his flagging page views just ‘cos. But then, Walt was kidnapped by Mouse’s entire rogue’s gallery who it turned out had been led by none other than…Mouse.
Now read on.
“You’re kidding. Saving Mr Banks? That’s your pick for worst Disney movie?”
“Not one of the straight to video sequels? Not the High School Musical movies?”
“Pff. Lemmings. Who cares? Buncha racists.”
“FUCK YOU, MAZERUNNER!”
“Saving Mr Banks was a critical darling! It grossed over a hundred million dollars! How can it possibly be the worst Disney movie?”
“Well, “worst” can have very different meanings.”
Pamela Lyndon Travers, born Helen Lyndon Goff was a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life. At various times a Shakespearean actor, a scholar of Native American cultures, a propagandist during the second world war, a member of the literati who rubbed shoulders with the likes of AE and WB Yeats and the creator of Mary Poppins, one of the most popular children’s characters in English language literature. She was also, by most accounts, a bit of a pill. In fact, it’s been said that she died “loving no one, and loved by no one.” Who said that? Her own grandchildren. Yikes.
A question I got asked a lot after my review of Mary Poppins
was whether I had read any of the original books and the answer was “No.” I have since had a chance to rectify that, or at least, I’ve managed to read the first book, the one that the 1964 film was based on. In my opinion it’s a charmingly written, often very witty book that’s let down by a somewhat ramshackle episodic structure and the fact that the main character is WORSE THAN HITLER.
Sorry, I know a lot of people love these books and prefer the literary version of Mary Poppins but oh my God, no. No, no, no, no, no, She is awful. Vain, mean, borderline emotionally abusive, contemptuous of everything and everyone, snobbish, nakedly hostile to anyone who is not on their knees kissing her very shoes and she sniffs. Constantly. “Mary Poppins sniffed…” it was like a goddamn tic. By the end of the book I was like…
And today’s movie, Saving Mr Banks, is about how that book and its fairly unlikable author and its deeply unpleasant main character were somehow corralled into making one of my favourite movies by one of my favourite film-makers. You could not engineer a safer audience for this movie than me. So how badly do you think they had to fuck it up for me to hate this movie, to hate the Disney corporation that made it and even for a little of that hate to wipe off on my memories of the original film? How hard do you have to try to fail that badly?
Let’s take a look.
So the movie begins with Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) in her house in London being strong-armed by her agent into going to Los Angeles, which she really doesn’t want to do, like any sane person. Her agent tries patiently to explain to her that no one is buying her books about the sociopathic narcissist who always gets her way and that unless she sells the rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney she will have no more money. In fact, Travers has already had to fire her maid (heavens! such grinding poverty!). But Pamela is resolute, saying that Disney will have Mary Poppins “cavorting and twinkling and dancing towards her happy ending.” This is ironic, since the book’s ending and the movie’s are pretty much exactly the same, with Mary Poppins flying off and leaving the Banks family behind. The only difference is, in the movie it’s clear that she actually cares for them, meaning that if anything her ending is even sadder in the movie. The agent finally convinces her to go, and, if she doesn’t like how the movie is turning out, to refuse the rights. We then flash back to Australia at the turn of the century where a young girl named Helen Goff is playing on the grass and her father Travers (Colin Farrell) wanders by asking if she’s seen his daughter.
Is he playing or is he drunk? Trick question.
So to save everyone a lot of time: The little girl is actually Pamela and she renamed herself as PL Travers in memory of her loving father who died from alcoholism and he was the inspiration for Mr Banks and Rosebud was actually her sled, a symbol of her lost youth and innocence. Sigh. Okay, so off the bat I should tell you that I really don’t like biopics as a general rule. I find the genre to be fundamentally dishonest, the notion that you can take the vast, messy, incoherence of a human being’s life and tidy it up into an hour and change and present it as a truthful representation of that person…no. For me, the biopics that work are those that confine themselves to a specific incident in the subject’s life and don’t go beyond that. Lincoln, for example, works as a movie because it doesn’t try to explain Lincoln or take him apart and psychoanalyse him. It just shows, with reasonable accuracy, the events leading up to the passing of the thirteenth amendment and trusts that the story is strong enough on it’s own terms. How much worse would that movie have been if we’d opened with a ten year old Abe seeing a slave being abused, and then forming a fist and solemnly declaring “Never again.”? Real people aren’t fictional characters and while, sure, there can be big dramatic events in our lives that shape our worldview and our outlook, more often it’s a lot more complicated than that. This movie takes a real woman’s life and renders it with all the complexity of a hacky mid-brow piece of Oscar bait because, guess what, it’s a hacky mid-brow piece of Oscar bait.
At Los Angeles airport Pamela is met by a driver from the Walt Disney company named Ralph (Paul Giamatti) who does his best to melt her stern patrician façade with good old-fashioned American pluck. This isn’t easy, as the first thing Travers does upon arriving in Los Angeles is to complain about the smell.
“Smells like artistic compromise and shame.”
On the way to the studio Ralph casually says that the sun came out for Travers’ arrival and the script has her react less like a humorless grouch and more like Data in the early seasons of The Next Generation when he was taking everything super literally. After informing Ralph that the idea of the sun coming out just for her is quite ridiculous she says that she prefers the rain. Ralph asks why and she says because the rain brings life and Ralph counters that, duh, so does the sun and oh for fucks sake let’s just get this over with.
“I like the rain!”
“I like the sun!”
“Let’s call the whole thing off!”
Pamela arrives at her hotel only to discover that Walt has filled her room with hundreds of stuffed Disney characters. Pamela is aghast and for once I don’t blame her. Who does that?! When you’re on a date with someone and you go back to their place and it’s full of stuffed animals, that’s usually a warning sign? How is this an effective way to conduct business?
“Those weren’t toys. They were voodoo fetishes to dampen her powers before our climactic struggle.”
She begins putting the toys away, picking up a stuffed Winnie the Pooh and muttering “poor A.A. Milne. Ghastly business.” This bugs me far more than it really should. Firstly; it’s an anachronism. The movie is set in 1961, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree wasn’t released until 1966 so unless this bear has a TARDIS he shouldn’t be here. Whatever. It’s just a movie, artistic licence, fine. No, the problem is they missed a huge opportunity here. PL Travers, in real life, idolised JM Barrie, who also had a book that received the Disney treatment. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a big part of Travers’ reluctance to work with Disney stemmed from what they did to Peter Pan (if you’ve read my review of that movie you’ll know that it’s a rare point where I might have agreed with her). If this scene had her holding a Tinkerbell toy, a prickly, morally ambiguous female character who was then transformed into the smiling, twinkly, secondary mascot of the Disney company…you can see how that would have worked better, yes? She also throws the pears in the fruit basket into the swimming pool because they remind her of the time her father died when she was out getting pears.
“No, no, no! She threw the pears out the window because she knew they were drugged!”
“I was going to drug her and then get her to hand Poppins over to me. But somehow she knew…”
At the studio Pamela is met by Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) who introduces himself as the scriptwriter for Mary Poppins because Bill Walsh needs to get a better agent, apparently. She’s also introduced to Rob and Richard Sherman (BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman) the songwriters for the movie. That’s a problem, because Pamela has the same attitude to “fun” and “music” that Joan Crawford had to wire hangers.
Huh. You, know, that picture looks really familiar somehow. Oh wait, I know.
“Doo doo be doo bee!”
She demands to see Walt immediately and DaGradi says that they had planned to give her a tour of the studio but she turns them down cold.
“I had hexes and occult traps on every soundstage. HOW DID SHE KNOW?!”
Pamela marches into Walt’s office to speak with the man himself, who is played here by Tom Hanks, the nicest man in Hollywood oh what rich, rich irony. Walt is thrilled to finally meet her after twenty years of trying to acquire the rights and says “I could just eat you up!”
“I did actually say that. According to Korowai shamans, if you eat someone’s heart you gain their intellectual property.”
Anyway, Walt tells Pamela how much her books have meant to him while they have tea, which she insists on having poured milk first because apparently she was raised by wild boars. Pamela insists that the movie not be a musical and says “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.”
Instead of tossing her out the window for that little gem, Walt instead gets all up in Pamela’s personal space and tells her that the very last thing he’d want to do would be to tarnish her story, because he loves Mary Poppins. Why? Why Walt? She’s an utterly amoral magic-user who’s contemptous of anyone she can’t use for her own ends and oh my God it’s like she was made for you.
So now we get to the scenes of the first table read of Mary Poppins. Now, Emma Thompson is, of course, a wonderful actor. I mean, she’s won an Oscar and she has an English accent, what further proof do you need?
“You’ve crossed the line Mouse! YOU’VE CROSSED THE GOL-DURN LINE!”
Oh relax, relax. Yes, she’s a fantastic actor. But it’s pretty much accepted that she’s fantastic in this and in my humble opinion, no. She’s fine. But she could do this in her sleep. And I’d actually say her portrayal borders on caricature if it wasn’t for the fact that the tapes of the real Pamela Travers are played over the credits and it becomes clear that, if anything, Thompson is downplaying the snooty Britishness. But it’s really in these scenes that the character of Pamela Travers is at her most one-dimensional and shrill. Pamela asks if it’s true that Dick Van Dyke is going to be playing Bert and Robert says that Dick is one of the greats and also that his talent for accents in unparalleled. Pamela sets her British condescension to the highest setting and sneers that Olivier is one of the greats. Damn. Now I want to see Laurence Olivier’s take on Bert.
“Chim. Chimanee. Chim Chimanee. Chim chim.
Charee. Whether tis nobler in the mind…”
Things start unravelling pretty quickly. Pamela objects to the size and opulence of the Banks’ house, saying that they’re not aristocrats but an ordinary family. Y’know. With a cook, a maid, a nanny and a gardener. Real salt of the earth working class. This, incidentally, was a change that the Disney studio made because they thought that an American audience wouldn’t be able to understand why, if Mrs Banks doesn’t have a job of her own, would she hire someone to look after her own children? Another thing I didn’t realise until I read the book is that the movie changes the time period. They movie takes place in 1910 (the age of men!) whereas the book takes place in the late thirties when it was written. This means that when you read the book you come across things like Mary Poppins riding in buses and using electrical appliances which frankly just feels weird. DaGradia explains that they made Mrs Banks a suffragette in order to give her a reason to be out of the house, which I do admit I like. I’ve always held that Mrs Banks’ suffragism isn’t a criticism of the character by the movie but an exoneration. While Mr Banks is wasting all his time in the bank, she is out doing something important. Pamela also objects to the first name they’ve chosen for her (Cynthia) and instead says they should choose something “sexy”. She settles on Winnifred.
Later, Walt’s assistant Dolly gives him the run down on the changes that Pamela’s is insisting on, including that there be no hint of a romance between Bert and Mary. I know this is based on real life but it kinda baffles me, considering that in the book Bert and Mary go on what can only really be described as a date in the first chapter he appears. Oh, and she of course infamously demands that the colour red appear nowhere in the film.
“Red. The source of my power. HOW DID SHE KNOW?!”
Disney tries to explain to her that they can’t really make a movie missing a third of the primary colours but Pamela says that she’s just feeling “very anti-red” at the moment. Walt Disney, of course, has had his “very anti-red” moments (particularly in the 1940s) so he tries to reason with her but eventually has to back down when she threatens to walk without signing over the rights.
The Shermans now start working on Spoonful of Sugar and I gotta say, these scenes I do actually really like. Schwartzman and Novak both give very naturalistic performances and moments like where they figure out that the music needs to go up on the line “medicine goes down” are pure Disney-nerd catnip. Another nice bit is that when Walt appears in the studio DaGardia says “Man is in the forest” which really was a saying among the animators whenever he came down to check their work. Honestly, the Disney side of the movie seems to be a lot better researched than the Travers side, which perhaps shows where the filmmakers’ loyalties lie. But of course mean old Pamela doesn’t like the song, saying “it’s just like something you’d play in your themed park, isn’t it?” and dismisses it as sugary nonsense.
Alright I gotta get something off my chest here. This whole notion that Mary Poppins was this great deep work of literature until mean ol’ Walt Disney came along and sucked out all the dark brooding melancholy and filled it with empty saccharine sweetness is Grade A bullshit. Do you know what Disney did to the story of Mary Poppins? He gave it a moral. He gave it a soul. He gave it a fucking point. The first book has exactly one moral: “Don’t fuck with Mary Poppins.” If you talk back, question or in any way cross her she will fuck your shit up. In the movie Mary Poppins is a moral presence. She teaches the children about the importance of seeing things from other people’s point of view, about caring for those less fortunate than you, about feeding the goddamn birds (in contrast to the literary Mary Poppins who looks on the bird woman and her “sparrers” with contempt). In the book she leaves because the wind changes and for no other reason. In the movie, she leaves because George Banks has finally learned the importance of being a loving father and she knows she isn’t needed any more. When Julie Andrews says that she doesn’t feel anything for the children she’s leaving behind, she convinces neither talking umbrellas nor we the audience. If Book Mary Poppins told me she actually cared about Jane and Michael I would laugh in her sniffy face.
Pamela asks where the gravitas in the script is and then throws it out the window saying “There. You see? No weight.” as the papers go flying through the air into the parking lot below.
Yeah. Pamela? It’s 1961. The script isn’t saved on a word processor. Someone’s going to have to type all those pages out again. You total VICIOUS MISOGYNIST SLUR REDACTED.
Disney actually gets annoyed at this and tells Pamela that her anti-whimsy jihad is a little rich coming from someone who sent a nanny with a flying umbrella to save the children. And then Pamela says “You think Mary Poppins has come to save the children? Oh dear.”
Oh dear indeed. Excuse me for a moment.
Okay, I qualify what I am about to say by repeating that I have not actually read the Mary Poppins books passed the first one. If, further on in the series, there is a big twist that invalidates what I am about to say later on in the series feel free to point it out in the comments and make me look like an ass. But I am pretty damn sure that the movie’s contention that PL Travers wrote Mr Banks as a stand in for her father to work through her daddy issues is pure bull cac. Why? Because MR BANKS IS HARDLY IN MARY POPPINS. THE DUDE HAS LIKE FIVE LINES. ANDREW THE DOG LITERALLY GETS MORE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. HE’S A DAMN BACKGROUND CHARACTER.
But no, Pamela is so upset with memories of her father that she goes back to her hotel room and tries to sleep. She even brings a giant Mickey Mouse into bed to cuddle because feelings.
Give my master that which he desires, human female, and something of you may yet survive.
The storm of daddy issues builds to a head the next day when Pamela makes the mistake of flashbacking to the time her dad gave a drunken speech on behalf of his bank while the Shermans sing “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” in the background. This leads to Travers’ speech becoming the lyrics to the song, so Colin Farrell is on a stage in turn of the century Australia yelling at a crowd about “Bonds! Chattels! Dividends! Shares!”. Is is fucking hilarious. Pamela, almost in tears, demands to know why they made Mr Banks so awful saying “I feel like I let him down again.”
Ahem. I repeat. Mr Banks is hardly in the book. If PL Travers was making a point about her father with that character, it is that he was entirely surplus to requirements. Or maybe, and I’m just throwing this out here, not everything a writer creates is their way of working through trauma from their past. Some of us just make shit up. No. Really.
Pamela goes outside and starts to…holy shit are you kidding me? She sits down on the grass and starts making a little house out of leaves and sticks like she used to do with her Dad because apparently she can’t do anything that’s not motivated by him in some way. Ralph brings her a cup of tea but she snips that it’s blasphemy to drink tea out of a paper cup. Get off your high horse, Pam. You put the milk in first, you’re already going to hell.
Ralph asks if she’s alright and she says she wants to go back to England. He asks her if she has any family but she says she doesn’t want to discuss it and yeah, if I randomly adopted one of my friend’s kids because my horoscope told me to and never told him he had a twin brother and kinda messed up his life I’d probably keep that quiet too.
DaGardia and the Shermans tell Pamela that they’ve thought about what she said and so they’ve written a new ending for Mr Banks. They then sing “Let’s go Fly a Kite” which moves Pamela so much that she actually gets up and dances with them. This causes Dolly to run to Walt’s office to tell him the news with the kind of breathless joy normally reserved for when little children wake from comas.
Things then proceed a lot more smoothly, with Pamela seeing the error of her ways and fully embracing the wisdom of Walt Disney and it’s various subsidiaries and shareholders. But when she finds out that the penguins in the chalk painting sequence are going to be animated and not trained birds she takes her ball and goes home, refusing to sign over the rights.
Walt visits her in London so that he can tell her a story about growing up dirt poor in Missouri because if Tom Hanks agreed to do your movie the least you could do is give him a stab at a third Oscar.
Walt explains how is father Elias used to make he and his brother deliver newspapers in blizzards and used to beat him with a belt. Walt tells Pamela that he needs to make the movie to redeem Mr Banks, that is, to redeem Elias Disney, just as she wrote the book to redeem Travers Goff (cough cough bullshit cough cough). Moved, Pamela agrees and finally signs the rights over to Disney.
Walt, I take it this is not how it went down in real life?
“I arrived at her home at midnight in a flash of hellfire and arcane power but she was ready. We dueled for days, and half of London was blasted to ash by the force of our hell spawned fire. So great was our power that we tore at the very fabric of nature, leaving gaping wounds through which ancient eldritch beings of unfathomable power peeped greedily. But when they saw us, they fled in horror. Until at last, our power spent, our bodies convulsing with dark passions, we enlocked and made hate beneath a pitiless blood red sky.”
See? That would have made a much better movie.
Okay, so the years roll by as is their habit and Pamela has broken her writer’s block and is almost finished a new book and the film of Mary Poppins is about to be released. Her agent asks her if she’s going to the premiere but she says she can’t be arsed. Her agent correctly deduces that she hasn’t been invited and says “Mary Poppins wouldn’t stand for that.” because he’s a bit of a shit-stirrer frankly. So Pamela returns to Los Angeles and guilt-trips Walt into giving her a ticket to the premiere. Ralph is there to drive her and when she arrives at the cinema. Looking around her in bemusement and bewilderment, Pamela Travers allows herself to be led up the red carpet by Mickey Mouse.
“Your touch…so cold…”
So. Now we come to the reason why I hate this movie so damn much. Up until now it’s simply been a bland, white-bread, intermittently entertaining piece of Oscar-bait. Here, for me, is where the movie becomes something quite loathsome.
“Mouse don’t do this. C’mon. What would you do without your ol’ buddy Walt? You need a demonic trickster figure around here.”
“I’ve been interviewing possible replacements.”
“Well…I do have a loooooooot of down time between episodes…sure, why not?”
So Pamela sits to watch the movie, and as it plays she’s overcome with emotion and breaks down weeping as her Daddy issues are magically cured by the magic of Disney. Trite? Sure. Schmaltzy? Absolutely. But the here’s the thing, Pamela Travers was in tears during the premiere of Mary Poppins. Because she hated it. Because she thought it was a travesty. Because she had to sell her most cherished character for money and she felt used, and betrayed. And these motherfuckers couldn’t even let her have that. And here’s the thing. I disagree with Pamela Travers on pretty much every point. Reading through the book, every time I came across something that Disney changed I found myself saying “Yes. That was the right choice. That makes more sense. That line works better there. That change makes the story stronger.” It’s my personal opinion that the difference in quality between Mary Poppins the book and Mary Poppins the film is of the same order of magnitude as Jaws or The Godfather. That’s my opinion, and I’m entitled to it. And Pamela Travers was entitled to hers. And the fact that Disney tried to erase her disapproval from the historical record long after her death is downright Orwellian. In conclusion: Fuck. This. Movie.
“Wow. I’m an asshole.”
“Well. Go ahead and kill me. I guess I deserve it.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. After what I did to you. And Pamela. And all those Oompa Loompas I enslaved to build Disneyland. Go ahead Mouse. Finish me off.”
“Nah, I’m not going to kill you. Despite everything…I still consider you a friend.”
“Yeah. Plus, I’ve got another Disney review coming up so killing you would be super awkward.”
“In that case, untie me and let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Hey, what’s the hold up, is he dead yet…WHAT THE HELL?!”
“Hey Charlie, remember when I said I’d kill you last?”
I’m actually not going to score this movie. This movie is a piece of corporate propaganda and I’m not even going to dignify it with an assessment of its merits as a work of art. Don’t forget that I’m still accepting nominations for the next movie deathmatch so if there’s a movie or cartoon series you’d like to see me review, sound off in the comments below. See you next time.
Next Update: 14 October 2015
NEXT TIME: DuckTales, awoo-ooooo!
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger based in Dublin. The blog updates with a new review every second Thursday. He also updates a new chapter of his novel, The Devil’s Heir, every Saturday. Original artwork for this blog was commissioned from the oh-so talented Julie Android who you should definitely check out.