Last night my family watched Saving Mr. Banks. We had heard that it was a very good movie and was nominated for several academy awards. It was not at all what I expected it to be. As you may recall, the movie centers on the difficulties that Walt Disney and his creative team had in making the movie version of P.L Travers’ Mary Poppins. I was unprepared for a heart-wrenching depiction of the developmental difficulties encountered by a young girl in the face of her stretched-to-the-breaking-point family. I do not know how accurate the movie was with the portrayal of P.L. Travers’ life, but the result was a magical, beautiful, heart-breaking, family romance of a movie that gives us a peek into the life of a young girl who tries too hard to be “practically perfect in every way.”
Spoilers ahead.The movies starts out with a scene in which a young father is playing with his daughter. It is an idyllic scene and shows a father who is happy and willing to enter a world of play and make-believe to engage with his daughter. These scenes are repeated throughout the movie and deepen the portrayal of a father who, despite problems with work (he is a bank manager), alcoholism, an unhappy wife, and failing health, loves his family deeply and feels his responsibility for them heavily.
The father copes with his burdens by retreat into fantasy play with his children and by escape through alcoholism. He teaches his daughter (although three children are shown, only one has any substantial role in the film) that his magical, romantic style of thought and play are part of their heritage and a means of resistance to life-eroding effects of financial pressures. He engages his daughter in fantasies that their horse is actually their uncle who was changed into a horse by a witch and that a chicken is actually his wife’s sister who was similarly enchanted. In the beginning of the movie, this play seems innocent and mutual. Later, we see that while his daughter delights in the play, the father uses it for the more grim purpose of escaping his real burdens of having to make a living and adapting his behavior to social norms. His other escape is through alcohol. Alcohol creates a barrier between the father and mother. It has apparently cost him at least one previous job. (In the opening scene, the family is moving because he lost his job.) It ultimately leads him to lose his most recent job, become a social outcast, get injured, get tuberculosis, and die. These two means of escape are frequently shown together as scenes of fantasy play are often associated with father’s possession of or use of alcohol.
The mother is never seen happy or comfortable with her children. She is a dutiful wife, who is apparently unable to escape the stressors of her world. She is constantly at work and constantly worried. She is aware of her husband’s drinking, but is unable to change it. She does not take part in the children’s games and fantasies so she appears as an emotional outsider. She loses her home to her husband’s drinking and inability to hold a job. She is thwarted by her husband in her efforts to engage the children in help with household duties. She is a woman lonely and adrift on the tides of fate.
While the family is shown in episodes illustrative of strong, committed family love and soul killing family stress, the daughter plays her dutiful role despite her parents’ warnings not to follow in their steps. The girl functions as a peacemaker — as the glue that holds the household together. She is used by the family for her parents’ needs. There is no doubt that her parents love her and that she loves them. She is clearly a “daddy’s girl” and idolizes her father’s clever, playful, mystical, and attentive ways. She adores her father, who clearly adores her as well. Still, their play is her father’s escape. Her father uses her to get him alcohol while he is confined to bed and his wife has hid his liquor. Before attempting suicide, her mother comes to her at night and tells her to take care of her sisters. Despite all that she can do to meet her parents’ needs, the family is falling apart. Still, she refuses to see her parents as bad people. Her mother is simply a woman who has taken on the roles of wife and mother, which are very demanding roles that may be too large for one woman. Her father, too, is a good man and devoted father and husband. She tells him that when she grows up she wants to be just like him.
It eventually becomes apparent that the daughter in the family drama is the child P.L. Travers. She has grown up to be a successful author, though now broke and in danger of losing her house. She is in negotiations with Walt Disney over the rights to make a movie of her popular character, Mary Poppins. Mrs. Travers’ personality has become rigid, uncompromising, and critical. It has apparently alienated her family and any friends she once had. When she flies to Los Angeles to meet with Walt Disney and his creative team, she shows herself to be demanding, hesitant to work with others, unable (and unwilling) to prioritize, a stickler for details even when they make no difference, irritable in the face of frustration, and unforgiving of perceived slights. Her demand for perfection is not limited to her creative process, though. She has special demands for how her tea is poured. She will not tolerate pears in her fruit basket. The only emotion she seems to allow herself to feel is righteous indignation. The daughter has, in short, grown up to have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.
As the movie progresses, it becomes evident that the Mary Poppins stories are a working through of the young P.L Travers’ family issues. Initially, Mrs. Travers sees Mary Poppins’ function as being a no nonsense realist who will prepare the children for the hard life that they will certainly face. She is not to be pleasant or comforting. She certainly would not sing (but might solemnly recite appropriate verse, if necessary). She will instil duty and the value of hard work into frivolous children. She will prepare them for their father’s ultimate failure (and death). Mr. Banks (representing P.L. Travers’ father) is not to be seen as a bad man, but as one who was too heavily burdened by the demands of the world. Mrs. Banks (representing P.L. Travers’ mother) is not to be seen as an inattentive mother, but as a women taking on the jobs of wife and mother that are simply too big for one person. Walt Disney’s vision (as presented in the movie) differed in some important ways from P.L. Travers’. Mr. and Mrs. Banks were not bad people, but neither were they good people. They were real people with their hopes, dreams, frustrations, weaknesses, and failures. They were also strong and resilient people who could pick themselves up and start again after disappointment and failure. Mary Poppins, he eventually realized, was not there to save the children. She was there to save Mr. Banks. Through her work with the Banks family, she enabled him to endure his trials at the bank, then return to his home and be a father to his children.
In the process of co-writing Mary Poppins (the movie), P.L. Travers is shown to grow to a mature understanding of her parents (but especially her father). This allows her to relax her need to control everything. It allows her to be free to be happy. She is eventually able to give up her need to hold her world together by being perfect. She can safely let her father claim his own faults and still be worthy of love and admiration. She can let others lay claim to insights into her father’s character. She can also let the Banks family forget the harsh world for a moment, take a break from the burdens of society and finances, and do something frivolous (but really important) — fly a kite.