The Oscar nominations came and went a couple of days ago. Saving Mr. Banks was largely absent from them, which in some ways was kind of surprising. In others, it really wasn't. It's a harder film to understand than it first seems, so I'm going to try and make it clearer, because it's a movie experience I really enjoyed.
The synopsis is familiar enough: Walt Disney tries to convince Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers that he's not going to butcher her precious character in his film adaptation. Since we all know the movie was definitely made, that eliminates the suspense. That's the biggest knock against it.
The other major difficulty lies in the presentation of Travers herself. Regardless of matters of strict accuracy, it can't be argued that she fought tooth and nail against the adaptation. It does, however, make the main character in Saving Mr. Banks either incredibly unsympathetic or the victim of a con game that makes Walt Disney of all people the villain.
I'm thinking that's the main reason the reception for the movie has been smaller than it could be, both with audiences and critics. (Despite what they may want you to believe, critics often have a hard time actually being critical, whereas their reviews often reflect whatever their personal criteria for good filmmaking happens to be, usually of the pseudo-highbrow variety.)
So I'm going to explain what seems to me to be obvious, but perhaps isn't as much so as I would like to think.
Basically, Walt is correct when he finally realizes what Travers tried to get him to understand, the eponymous revelation. Mary Poppins doesn't show up to rescue the children, but rather the father. Travers is so busy being acerbic, even to poor Paul Giamatti, that you may not realize she sometimes has points to make. It's not all no-no-no just for the sake of being contrary. And there's a reason why she envisions Mr. Banks as having no mustache.
Because Mr. Banks is her father, Travers Goff.
He's also Bert, which is why she doesn't want so much as a hint of romance between Mary and Bert. That much, the dual character inspired by the same person, is something Travers may have borrowed from the stage versions of Peter Pan, which cast the same actor in the roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. In fact, if you never really thought of Mary Poppins that way, her story is not so different from Peter Pan's at all. Most people today only know her from the Disney movie, ironically enough.
They can know her just as well from Saving Mr. Banks now, too. The whole movie ends up being exactly what Travers always wanted, even if she never realized it.
Travers created Mary Poppins as a way to deal with that flashback element that so pervades the movie, her relationship with a father who in some ways mirrors the banking woes of Mr. Banks (Goff was a banker, too). Her father lived in a fantasy world to escape from the pressure of a job that had too much mind-numbing reality to it. He also drank. He presented his imagination to his daughter, the young Travers, but was less able to hide his attempt to escape a job he loathed from everyone else. It eventually destroyed him.
To a young Travers, her father would have been a magical person like Bert, the guy who introduces whimsy into the everyday world as a matter of course (and yes, who ends up dancing with animated penguins). To a grown-up Travers, her father would end up being the supreme example of what happens to someone when the real world crashes in. She sees her father broken, but she never stops romanticizing him. Mr. Banks ends up being the version of him that she gets to redeem, while Bert is the one who never needs such a thing, who in fact helps Mary Poppins accomplish what her inspiration couldn't: saving, well, Mr. Banks.
The real Mary Poppins was an aunt who came to help out the Goff family in Travers Goff's final days. She swept in just like the later fictional Mary Poppins, and seemed to be exactly what the doctor would have never thought to order, something so contrary that she seemed capable of achieving the impossible. In her own way, a lot like Travers Goff. Except in the real world, Mary Poppins doesn't exist. There was no magical cure. Travers Goff dies.
The grieving Travers grows up still believing in her father. She writes a book, using the imagination her father instilled in her as a girl, but reflecting far more of the real world than her father was ever capable of confronting. Her version is reflected through her father's warped mirror, though. Mr. Banks is more like her father than the Disney version, but still needs redemption from an oppressive job. Mary Poppins shows up. The point Travers becomes okay with the adaption is when the redemptive ending with the kite repair is introduced. Very tellingly.
Also tellingly but never explicitly explained is why Walt Disney is so interested in this story. But the telling feature is in the mustache. Travers Goff didn't have a mustache. Travers is very clear in her desire to keep Mr. Banks with a clean upper lip. But as we know, the movie Mr. Banks ends up with a mustache. Guess who else has a mustache? Walt Disney.
No, it's not because of a promise he made to his daughters. It's all about Elias Disney, and a mildly oppressive youth Walt experienced. He got over it, but it forever altered the course of his destiny. When given the chance, he reclaimed his childhood forever. He made it mandatory for all youths to experience what he'd never known, actually. That's the whole Disney formula. You may think of it as the ultimate kid-gloves entertainment, something so lightweight that you can never take it seriously.
But then again, Saving Mr. Banks is the ultimate version of taking Disney seriously.
Walt wanted to make Mary Poppins so badly because like P.L. Travers herself he ended up identifying with the story. He saw himself as Mr. Banks. Hence the mustache. Hence his equally intractable stance on it, as with all the demands Travers attempted to impose.
You see, the Disney legacy wasn't just a way for Walt to make money, but for him to make sure what happened to him never happened, as much as possible, to another child again. The same as what Travers was trying to do with Mary Poppins to begin with. She was still trying to process her feeling about her childhood. And she had a harder time than Walt did.
That's the whole story of Saving Mr. Banks. That's why there are so many flashbacks to her childhood, and her father, as we head toward the inevitable. Because this is not a story about making Mary Poppins. It's about saving P.L. Travers.
I don't know whether it ever really happened in real life. I don't know if Travers ever allowed the making of the film adaptation of her beloved character to change her life for the better. But it's a way for audiences to benefit the way she hoped they would from Mary Poppins to begin with, why she wanted to make sure the character was taken seriously in the adaptation. Because there was a point to all the nonsense. It wasn't about the nonsense at all, no matter what anyone might think.
Walt got that. That's why he wanted to make the movie in the first place. And the movie about the making of the movie might have finally given Travers what she wanted, even if she herself isn't here anymore to appreciate it.
She fought Walt tooth and nail because he was the embodiment of the cruel machine that ate up and spat out her father. She never saw Walt as the entertainment demigod he was even at that time. She saw him as a silly man making a silly living. The same her father would have said about people taking money so deathly seriously.
To her, turning Mary Poppins into a movie was the same as taking the magic away from it, no matter how much the filmmakers tried to spruce it up. It was the real world once again intruding violently on her, the very thing her father struggled all those years to keep from her. Unsuccessfully. His failure turned into her triumph, and she didn't want to let go. Actually, she didn't want to let go of the disappointment she experienced when she saw past her father's elaborate charades.
She clung to the fantasy, and in the process became grimly impervious to anyone else's magic. Such as Walt Disney's.
No, this is not a commercial for the sainthood of Walt Disney, anymore than it is a vilification of P.L. Travers. It's a deeply nuanced portrait of pain redeemed.
And it's probably the best movie of 2013, no matter if that's acknowledged by the Oscars.