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Money for magic: A review of Saving Mr. Banks

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Saving Mr. Banks film

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Imagine hating animation. Imagine your book creation being sought after by a company known for making animated films. Imagine further that company's iconic cartoon character becoming your surrogate bed-pal on a lonely night. Imagine hating theme parks. Imagine going to the Happiest Place on Earth and having a change of heart. It's hard to imagine that the conceits of Saving Mr. Banks could pander anymore heavy-handedly than they do. But alas, this is not the story of corporate revenge: it's a tale of persnickety prudishness versus pompous persistence.

Of course, the greatest revenge is when the targeted person can't do anything about the act of retribution. And since Mrs. P.L. Travers passed in 1996 at the healthy age of 96, it seems the time was ripe to let Mickey have the last laugh. But is the mouse squeaking away with the cheese -- or did Disney just find away around the trap that Travers set?

The story of Walt Disney’s double-decade pursuit of the IP rights to Travers’ Mary Poppins books is not only the stuff of legends, but has seen its day in published tomes -- and now the holiday gift of a film, starring the most affable actor in Hollywood, Tom Hanks. Saving Mr. Banks dares you to not fall for it.

In her nineties, decades after Disney had died, the grudge match between these two contrasting souls continued as Travers forbade anyone associated with the Mary Poppins film to work on the London musical, based on her series of Poppins books. Only because English producer Cameron Macintosh secured the rights in 1996 before Travers passed did the musical get made, some six years hence. But maybe P.L. Travers was smarter still: Her legal blockade in her will forbids any American from turning her Mary Poppins books into any more films.

The sharp distinctions in character are apparent between Disney and Travers: he, a product of his times, and she, a female force to be reckoned with -- or rather, a woman not of her times. Though much has been said of Walt the man regarding his negative attitude toward women, one must surely put that matter into the camera frame of the sixties. That Travers even tolerates Disney is testament to how pervasive the corporate attitudes were toward trailblazing women. She is depicted being more outraged by Americanism and the silliness in the entertainment business than she is horrified by Walt Disney or any perceived or imagined misogyny. Indeed, Emma Thompson plays Travers as a woman who is at one moment stunned by Disney’s daring buffoonish manner and lack of manners and in the next breath, drawn in by him as a cavalier curiosity -- a legend in his own time and mind. It's a match up between two egos that bizarrely and almost perversely respect and disrespect one another at the same time.

What's perhaps the saddest aspect of the stern Travers, in reality, is that she ultimately did sell-out for money in the 1960s, despite the fierce words in the film that shows her as a woman of severe conviction, who treasured the family jewels that she alone created from memories of her past that she brazenly confronted. She was desperate, her book sales floundering and her creative drive on idle, she needed to score beyond her flatlining book royalties. Thompson reveals Travers as a prude in many ways. But curiously, she was likely a bi-sexual, adopted and raised a boy from a colleague, and wrote erotica early in her career -- all stunning circumstances given the stuffy times during which she lived, yet right in character with her psyche and determined sense of independence.

Despite her convictions to keep Disney from her intellectual property for twenty some years, she finally caved. Was it the songs from the Sherman Brothers that won her over? A trip to Disneyland? Or was it the advance, the subsequent payout and hope of ongoing royalties from a company whose trajectory was going stellar? She acquiesced -- not because of a silly merry-go-round ride, but for money. Filthy lucre. And after cashing her checks and royalties, she continued her vociferous rants, despising Disney and the final film, including the dancing animated penguins, the color red, and Dick Van Dyke. She kept her persona alive.

Alas, Travers’ duplicitous life was far more colorful than what was depicted in the Saving Mr. Banks film (sure, she put on airs like a Londoner, but was an Aussie; she veiled her identity in a non de plume, but those are subtleties compared to the real woman). A hint of what the real Travers was like are conveyed loosely in the somewhat displaced, ill-conceived flashbacks in the film. Clearly Travers was a woman who should have been in therapy, but instead opted to exorcise herself into a state of turgid tepidity by writing fantastical fiction about her own life. In fact, the blending of fact and fiction is deftly woven into the film's texture and is fundamentally what the story is all about: revealing truths about reality through the guise of make believe. It's how Travers was able to survive the demons of her past. For those purists who know the multi-faceted sides of this tale, it's obvious that the film is not a documentary.

What's most important to the Hollywood story is that Mr. Banks (Travers' misanthropic father) is redeemed forever on celluloid. In that interpretation of Poppins, both Travers and Disney trump one another: Mrs. Travers doles out maudlin medicine, whilst Disney measures out a spoonful of sugar, allowing viewers to swallow the story of how a difficult person and a determined person depend upon one another. Like the beggar woman selling crumbs for the birds, tuppence a bag, Disney and Travers feed one another, too -- money for magic.

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