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‘Saving Mr. Banks’ celebrates the magical nature of our personal reality

“Saving Mr. Banks” (2013). Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Griffiths, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee. Director: John Lee Hancock. Screenplay: Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Web site. Trailer.

Have you ever looked at something one way only to find that everyone else sees it completely differently? That might seem improbable to some, but, if we accept the notion that we each create our own reality, the idea doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched. In fact, it might even be seen as downright magical. However, if we’re unable or unwilling to recognize the existence of such personal distinctions, we set ourselves up for trouble, as illustrated by the new, fact-based docudrama, “Saving Mr. Banks,” a chronicle of the back story behind the making of the beloved children’s film, “Mary Poppins” (1964).

In 1961, children’s author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) faced a serious dilemma: She was broke. Despite having published a number of best-selling titles (most notably the Mary Poppins books, the endearing adventures of the Banks family and their magical nanny), revenues and royalties from those works had dried up. Confronted with the prospect of losing her London home, Travers’ situation had become quite dire. But, in spite of this looming misfortune, she had a way out – if she chose to make use of it. Availing herself of this safety net was easier said than done, however, because it involved a decision that pained her greatly.

World-renowned movie producer Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had been a fan of Travers for over 20 years. In fact, he was so taken with the Mary Poppins books and the favorable impact they had on his daughters that he promised them he would one day make a picture based on those enchanting works. To that end, he aggressively sought to obtain the movie rights to the books, and, as someone accustomed to getting his way, he was confident he could achieve that goal. There was just one hitch – Travers hated Disney’s movies and was loath to sell him the rights to her works.

Travers thought most of Disney’s films (especially the animated ones) were little more than inane, overly sentimental, saccharin-encrusted pap. She felt their simplistic, unrealistic narratives did a grave disservice to their audiences, leaving the hordes of children who watched them ill-prepared for the harsh realities of everyday life, and she wanted no part of that. However, Disney was willing to pay handsomely to secure the movie rights, enough to solve Travers’ financial woes. So, with her back to the fiscal wall, she reluctantly made a trip to Hollywood to discuss Disney’s proposal, holding her nose the entire way.

Despite a warm and accommodating welcome from Disney and his staff, Travers had her guard up from the moment she arrived. She agreed to discuss a movie project in principle, but she was unwilling to sign over the rights until she knew exactly what Walt had in mind. She met with script writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman), but she was adversarial from the outset, insisting on approval of every detail. In fact, she was so mistrustful of her would-be collaborators that she required all of their sessions together to be tape-recorded as a hedge against any misunderstandings.

To make matters worse, Travers was exceedingly belligerent and condescending in her objections, which ran the gamut from major issues, such as a prohibition against the use of animation, to the smallest of minutiae, such as one of the characters being given a previously nonexistent mustache. At one point, she even went so far as to express her dislike of the color red, insisting that it not be used anywhere in the film. Such unreasonable and unrealistic demands finally prompted the mild-mannered Disney to step in to find out what was really going on.

Through discussions with Walt and her collaborators, Travers gradually revealed that she was reluctant to subject her beloved characters to Disney’s proposed treatment, mainly because it didn’t accurately reflect the image she had long held of her cherished creations. And the reason for this was that Mary Poppins and the Banks family were based on Travers’ own childhood experiences. Thus the war of wills between Travers and Disney was not one based on creative differences; it was personal.

To gain Travers’ support, Disney and company needed to engage in what essentially amounted to some impromptu counseling. They needed to understand where Travers was coming from to get a better handle on the nature of her objections. Viewers of this film become aware of that through a series of intercut flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in rural Australia, most notably episodes depicting the bittersweet relationship between her younger self (Annie Rose Buckley) and her kindly but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). The challenges associated with those difficult daily living conditions eventually prompted her overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson) to seek outside help to bring order to the household. That assistance was provided by Travers’ Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), a stern but loving woman who provided the necessary stability – and who would one day become the inspiration for Mary Poppins.

As Travers revealed more about her personal story, Disney and his creative team also came to see that they had misunderstood the intent underlying the narratives of the Mary Poppins books: They had innocently, but mistakenly, believed that the title character showed up in the lives of the Banks family to help out with the children. However, as Travers gradually and painfully made clear, Mary Poppins’ arrival was instead predicated on saving Mr. Banks, a fictionalized version of her father, and it’s that storyline that she insisted the film must depict. Thus began an intense, heartfelt process that would transform the movie project, not to mention Travers herself.

The central misunderstanding at the core of this story, ironically enough, is very telling about the nature of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we create our own reality through our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Travers was troubled (and, arguably, somewhat justifiably so) that her beloved characters were being unacceptably misrepresented. But, then, that’s understandable, because she created them based on her beliefs – impressions that, quite obviously, differed markedly from those of her readers and of the Disney staff, who created their own visions of Mary and the Bankses based on their own beliefs. And, because Travers’ creations arose from beliefs based on such personally touching experiences, their proposed alterations were difficult for her to fathom.

As unintentionally inoffensive as those alternate interpretations may have been, they were nevertheless painful for Travers to contemplate, especially since many of the conflicted feelings associated with the beliefs and experiences that gave rise to her creations remained unresolved, even after all those years. In fact, the author was so clear in her own mind about her vision for the characters (and unaware of the discrepancies between that and the views of others) that it never even occurred to her that Mary Poppins and the Banks family could be seen in any other light than the one she had intended for them (hence, her resistance and antagonism).

This, in turn, points out one of the potential pitfalls that can come with conscious creation – the possibility of developing tunnel vision with regard to our beliefs. Our focus can become so one-directional that we lose sight of the myriad other options the philosophy makes possible. We thus run the risk of falling prey to the practice of creation by default, or un-conscious creation, wherein we become locked into one way of thinking (and creating), one that keeps us from seeing other equally viable possibilities.

Travers’ experience with Disney and his associates thus helps to open her eyes to never-before-considered options. In that respect, then, she has her horizons broadened in much the same way that Mary Poppins helps expand the vistas of those she touches. In particular, this experience teaches Travers that she, like all of us, must learn how to let go of outmoded beliefs and creations when they no longer serve our interests.

For instance, the difficulties of Travers’ childhood, which helped give shape to her writings, also helped frame the course of her own adult life. The tampering that Disney and company proposed for her characters and narratives represented a symbolic threat to the beliefs she had employed all of her life in creating the reality she experienced, and, in her view, changing the means by which her existence arose – no matter how unfulfilling or even detrimental that reality may have been at times – was not an acceptable option. On some level, however, Travers also knew she needed to change her beliefs to change her reality. As a student of Buddhism and Gurdjieff, she was clearly in search of answers, but nothing she investigated seemed to work.

That’s where Disney’s involvement proved invaluable. Specifically, Walt and his colleagues showed the author that it was okay to embrace beliefs about being happy, that life needn’t always be seen as being full of despair. They employed this tactic on several levels, too, including everything from how they respectfully intended to portray her characters to how they treated her as a person (thanks in large part to the courtesies extended her by Ralph (Paul Giamatti), the affable chauffeur Disney assigned to Travers during her stay in Hollywood). In this way, Disney did justice not only to her characters, but also to their creator herself.

The film adaptation of “Mary Poppins” went on to become one of the most endearing children’s films of all time, winning 5 Oscars on 13 nominations and 1 Golden Globe Award on 4 nominations. Even if Travers wasn’t entirely pleased with the finished product, the experience helped change her life and the beliefs she drew upon in creating her existence. And all it took was a little metaphysical magic, the kind that her brainchild routinely employed in transforming the lives of those with whom she interacted. In that sense, Travers’ experience went full circle, creating a character who helped change the lives of others and whose influence, in turn, helped change the life of the one who created her. Given that, then, “Saving Mr. Banks” could just as easily have been titled “Saving Mrs. Travers.” In either instance, the designation would have been just as appropriate.

I’ll admit to having had some strong reservations about this film going in. Based on its trailer, the picture struck me as a lightweight, self-congratulatory piece of fluff, but that impression, thankfully, is far from the truth.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is an excellent movie in virtually every regard. It’s surprisingly substantive for a Disney release, one that honors the subject matter on which it’s based but that successfully avoids slipping into an exercise in studio propaganda. It’s a superb period piece, effectively capturing the look and feel of both 1960s Hollywood and turn-of-the-century Australia. Its razor-sharp writing is spot-on, especially in the incisive barbs casually tossed about by Travers and in its more emotional moments, evoking feelings without being manipulative. But, most of all, this picture is an actors’ showcase, featuring tremendous performances across the board, particularly by Thompson, who has richly earned best actress nominations in the upcoming Critics Choice, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award competitions. The film itself picked up three additional Critics Choice Award nominations, including best picture.

Our awareness of how and why we create our reality as we do is one of our most precious metaphysical birthrights, and we’d serve ourselves well never to lose sight of that. “Saving Mr. Banks” shows us what can occur when that happens, as well as what it takes to get it back. But, even more importantly, the film celebrates the boundless joy that comes from creating our personal reality. And that’s pretty magical if you ask me.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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