Thursday, August 28, 2014

Searching for Walt Disney

Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

I've had a lot of experience with Walt Disney in my life. As a child, I wept for Bambi; I feared as if for my own young life when Snow White ran through the dangerous wood to escape the evil queen, guilty of nothing but being so damn beautiful. I giggled at the mice in Cinderella, and was awed by the glorious ball gown and the glass slipper. By the time Alice in Wonderland was done I was bothered by the bastardization of the original Tenniel drawings by Disney artists. I preferred the original Peter Pan, and I could not abide the cutification of Winnie the Pooh, a dignified English gentleman of a teddy bear, made into a naïve infant. I didn't bother to see his version of Mary Poppins. I had long before vowed if I ever had a child he or she would not be taken to Disneyland.

I was, I suppose, a bit like P.L. Travers. I don't think I was ever as nasty as she is portrayed in the film Saving Mr. Banks, but it was not difficult for me to empathize with her. I understood Walt Disney and saw what he was doing, but I didn't have much respect for him. I hated the way he took existing works and cheapened them by dumbing them down, making them sentimental, smoothing them out, and creating a world which was neither magical nor enchanting but false. If I had written a book about a no-nonsense English nanny who knew how to solve problems, I would have great trepidation in allowing Disney anywhere near her.

I expected Saving Mr. Banks to be a whitewash of the whole Disney operation, and to gloss over the prickly Ms. Travers, or, worse, to portray her as being converted by the so-called Disney magic. Emma Thompson as Travers is immune. Saving Mr. Banks is really a biography of P.L. Travers, pitting a tense Englishwoman against an always-amiable American. She bristles at the atmosphere of California--the constant trays of hors d'oeurve, the informality of first names, the sunny, unrealistic atmosphere surrounding the whole Disney enterprise. Walt Disney courts her, in a way, and defers to her where he can. Nothing works. She has the rights to her book and characters, and will not grant them unless he eliminates whimsy and magic from his script. Tom Hanks is a great foil for Thompson, and the conflicts between them are very convincing. But the movie is about Travers, flashing back to a childhood of enormous stress, as we see Thompson coping with memories as she defends her creation. The incessant intrusion of triviality into her hidebound, serious world, rankles her until she can no longer take it. Saving Mr. Banks presents a counterpoint of Ms. Travers' sad memories with the oblivious optimism of the crew plugging away at Walt Disney Studios.

It's a fine movie. It sent me to the Internet to search for what might be true about it (not everything, for certain) and for what Walt Disney and P.L. Travers were really like. What I learned didn't lessen my opinion of Saving Mr. Banks.  It deserves to be around for those of us who might not be in Walt Disney's corner. We might reconsider that as P.L. Travers did. In time, even I might come around a little.  

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