SAVING MR. BANKS is a tale of two artists. Count ‘em: two. Some of the harsher criticism leveled at BANKS might lead you to believe there’s only one artist’s story at the heart of this movie. There are, in fact, at least two.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that SAVING MR. BANKS is a tale about the making of a fairytale. This film about artists is a work of art itself. The quality of art may be in question but the fact that it is art should not be. Calling it Disney propaganda is a not very imaginative criticism. Dismissing it because it’s a “lie” is lazy. All movies lie – even the ones that tell the Truth.
BANKS is a dramatic telling of the long and contentious journey that led to Walt Disney’s film adaptation of P.L. Travers’s classic children’s novel, “Mary Poppins”. But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about two very different kinds of artists. I’m not saying that every artist falls into one of only two categories. But I am saying Disney and Travers, as portrayed in MR. BANKS, personify two categories of artists we see in popular culture every day. These categories are often at odds with one another professionally and sometimes personally. Think Lennon/McCartney, Letterman/Leno, Scorsese/Spielberg – and add to the list, Travers/Disney.
Some artists create only to please themselves. Some aren’t satisfied until others are pleased. There are artists who use their chosen medium to work through their own pain and to wrestle with questions that haunt them personally. Then there are artists whose work is a tool for circumventing their pain and changing the conversation. There are artists who are suspicious and uncomfortable when the masses embrace their work. Then there are artists who cannot fathom why their work elicits such critical vitriol. There are artists who oppose The Man, and artists who become The Man so they can create with impunity. It’s shortsighted to romanticize or demonize either group. It’s also unfair of me to categorize any artist because once you think you’ve figured them out, they’re likely to surprise you. Humans are like that.
It’s worth mentioning here that a lot of memorable art has resulted from collaborations by artists from each category. Inevitably there is conflict but when there is collaboration the results can be compelling and unforgettable. Often these relationships are built on mutual respect and affection that escape casual observers. It’s the human experience that all artists have in common.
It interests me how often artists with very different outlooks and portfolios share similar life stories. Both Travers and Disney (as portrayed in the film) had challenging, difficult childhoods. When we meet these characters as adults we see how those childhoods informed their work in starkly different expressions. In the tale that BANKS tells it is the shared human experience that ultimately creates the armistice. Whether or not you believe the film, it’s an idea worth hanging onto isn’t it? That knowing someone’s story might change the way you see her?
One of my favorite moments in the film finds Disney coming to the painful conclusion that he’ll never win the rights to make Poppins. He’s found Travers an immoveable force and he thinks he knows why. In this moment he recounts to one of his employees how he was pressed early in his career to sell the rights to Mickey Mouse. As tempting as it was he just couldn’t because, “that mouse is family to me.” In that moment the conflict is not Disney’s enmity with Travers, rather it is his empathy.
There’s an undercurrent in the criticism of MR. BANKS that says we shouldn’t trust the film because Walt Disney Pictures made it. I think it’s a good idea not to trust that any work of art comes to us as an objective whole. Corporate America doesn’t have a monopoly on presenting it’s product the way it wants. All messages/art/entertainment are fashioned by choices and come to us with built in values and a point of view.
There are troubling aspects of both Mr. Disney’s and Ms. Travers’s true stories that are not addressed in the film. I don’t think the filmmakers are obligated to explore or explain those. SAVING MR. BANKS is not a history lesson. My friend, Philip Martin, reminds us “people who get their history from movies, get the history they deserve.” It’s not a documentary (though it was inspired by a documentary about Travers). It is a tale of two artists. And it is a tale well told.
I’d love to know what you thought of SAVING MR. BANKS and/or your take on the ideas in this post. Comment here or on our Facebook page to contribute to the conversation.(pictured: Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks” Directed by John Lee Hancock)