Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Childhood's Garden: Disnefying Disney in 'Saving Mr. Banks'

            I never expected to be learning wisdom from "Mary Poppins."
            I never saw the popular movie by that name. I never read any of the books. I thought the whole phenomenon was silliness with a British accent. And I had no idea who the "Mr. Banks" in the new movie titled "Saving Mr. Banks" could possibly be.
            I also did not expect to be weeping when an actor playing, of all people, the right-wing entertainment mogul Walt Disney confessed the traumas of his own childhood -- hand-delivering newspapers in the snow under threats of physical abuse from a hard-assed father -- to an acerbic Englishwoman who has tried to keep her own childhood heartbreak hidden all her life.
            The startling take-away, for me at least, from the new Disney film is that the "Mary Poppins" stories written by Australian writer P.L. Travers do not originate from the character of the upright determined nanny, that soul of English rectitude who restores order and cares for the children in a time of family crisis, then goes childhood-fantasy flying off beneath her totemic umbrella... but from the traumatizing loss of an idealized father and an idyllic childhood.
            I picked up most of the classical children's literature I know through reading it to, or with, my children. Not having had much literature in my own childhood beyond "The Hardy Boys" and a string of baseball biographies. After discovering the real H. H. Milne "Winnie the Pooh," it struck me as a travesty that Pooh bear, the fabrication of a completely English sensibility, should have become a Disney product. I kept most Disney productions at arm's length, including the famous theme park that my children saw under the tutelage of their indulgent grandparents since expeditions there would have never made the top of my list.
            But as opposed to the Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews movie of fifty years ago, the new film has a harder edge beneath its depiction of Disneyesque fun -- an approach to the good old studio days that was, interestingly, both gentle satire and homage -- that appealed to me.
            The little girl at the center of the film's back story -- a version of the author, though we're not told that till near the end, enjoys an idealized childhood with an ideal, magical father; a father out of a fairy tale who turns every experience, even a humdrum one such as carrying your own luggage to the train station, into a magical mystery tour. For the angel-haired child he calls "Ginty," the sun is always shining, the roses blooming, the hour filled with potential miracles just around the next bend in a childhood sacralized by imagination. With her fair hair, light skin and puffy Victorian dresses, the child actress who plays this role looks like sunlight.
            But beware of fairytale fathers, for whom life is all imagination and delights, because they -- and the fairytale childhoods they spin into tenuous existence -- necessarily run aground against the hard rocks of reality. This is the case with the film's "Mr. Banks," who is compelled by life's material question to work in a real, actual, mercantile, money-grubbing 'bank' -- a troubling confusion of names here. That hard reality's determination to stamp out the poetry in his soul and turn him into a shill for the virtue of children's savings accounts drives him to drink. And this dynamic leads to his daughter's loss of childhood innocence, to family conflict, and to eventual tragedy in the dry country of the Australian outback where the family is forced by Dad's difficulties to restart his fortunes in, alas, a bank. On top of everything else, increasingly dissolute, borderline abusive Dad contracts TB and expires after the devoted Ginty finds for him the hidden bottle of booze he describes to her as his "medicine."
            Yet the moment that stays with me from this film is the already doomed father confiding to his fairy-princess little girl: "You and I have a Celtic soul. This world is illusion."
            He's right. From the point of view of innocence and imagination the world is never what it should be. Daddies have to go to work. Children are made sit at desks all day to to learn how to spell and multiply fractions; have safe sex and stand up to bullies. Adulthood turns out to be some version of the bank.
            But in Disney Productions' new film the climactic scene between Disney (Hanks) and Travers (played by Emma Thompson) touches this universal disappointment and -- in almost classic Disneyesque fashion, turning loss to triumph through courage and good theatrics -- and also, of course, because we have Hanks and Thompson to lead us through. It's a classic application of the Disney formula: good theater beats the odds in the end.
            The film's moral message is one of those universal saws: the need for forgiveness.
            It's a good message, though not I suspect the theme of the "Mary Poppins" books written by the real P.L. Travers (as I said, I haven't read them). I also can't say how close the film's depiction of Travers's life is to that of the real author.
            A good message: you have to forgive yourself. I'd like to believe it was enough; that if we truly took it to heart the world would prove to be beautiful after all as the "fairy land" a magical daddy once created for an innocent heart. If only that were the case.
            But as Hanks' Disneyfied Disney also knew, we can't do without hope.