Disney, fathers and daughters and ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

“Saving Mr. Banks” is a sentimental movie about fathers and daughters, for father and daughters and even might be that spoonful of sugar that could cure some Disney critics.

Walt Disney changed Southern California forever. My father loved animation and we would sit down as a family to watch Disney. Growing  up in the modest and then semi-rural San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, we made several trips to Disneyland, one when it was pouring rain. Chula Vista is about two or three hours away from Anaheim, the city where Disneyland is based. I didn’t realize until the annual Chula Vista High School senior night at Disneyland, when I learned that many of my fellow seniors had never been to Disneyland, how special and expensive those trips were for my blue-collar working-class father.

By high school, however, my father has been dead for a couple of  years. Yet I always remember Disneyland as a happy place–it’s somewhere that a father can safely take his daughter. It’s no surprise to me that Walt Disney had daughters. That might explain why there such a focus on princesses and why so few of the classic Disney animated films feature princes with actual names (the exception being the 1959 “Sleeping Beauty” with Prince Philip).

The last surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, passed away last month at age 79, after “Saving Mr. Banks” had been completed. In many respects the movie is a Valentine from a daughter to a father, Walt Disney. As the Disney brand grew, people forgot about Walt Disney, the warm presence whose dream came true and began with a mouse and hard times. Miller spent most of her time hiding from the Disney limelight until the completion of Disney Hall was threatened in 1997. According to her L.A. Times obituary, Miller explained, “I wanted something that would bear my father’s name, that would come from his wealth but not be commercial, that would be just a wonderful thing for the city, for the spirit, for the soul.”

Miller, a USC alum but not a grad, married Ron Miller, a USC football star, in 1954, a year before Disneyland would open. Ron Miller would rise to become president of Walt Disney Productions until he was forced out and the family sought refuge in Northern California.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is about daughters and their fathers. We don’t see either of the daughters, Diane Marie Disney (1933-2013) or Sharon Mae Disney (1936-1993), except in photos on Walt Disney’s desk. The movie tells us that Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) made a promise to his daughters who were delighted with the P.L. Travers book “Mary Poppins.” At the time of the 1964 movie, there were five books (“Mary Poppins,” 1934; “Mary Poppins Comes Back,” 1935; “Mary Poppins Opens the Door,” 1943; “Mary Poppins in the Park,” 1952 and “Mary Poppins From A to Z,” 1962). The next book wouldn’t be published until 1975.

Disney was determined to keep his promise and dealt with the difficult Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson). Travers is living comfortably in London, but to keep her standard of living, she needs to make this Disney deal because she hasn’t written any new books and sales of her novels were slipping. There is no money. Financial desperation is something that Travers knew well. She is, as we know immediately through flashbacks that are interspersed throughout the movie, not English or British. She was born and raised in Australia to an Irish father, Travers Robert Goff.

Goff is portrayed with considerable charm by Colin Farrell. He’s the  kind of handsome father girls dream of, but his charm is also a desperate cover that many alcoholics develop to get by. Goff makes his daughters, particularly his eldest, Helen (played by Annie Buckley) whom he calls “Ginty,” princesses. Goff is fatally ill with a lung disease (as was ironically Walt Disney). His failures at work cause the family to move constantly and Ginty witnesses his final failure,  a demotion from bank manager to clerk. It’s then that Ginty finally understands the reality beyond the dreams just as her weary mother has (Ruth Wilson).

As the supposed wife of a Mr. Travers, Helen has become Pamela, an uptight woman who insists on being called Mrs. Travers. She dresses in tight tweed suits and without the ability to return kindnesses. When a fellow passenger (Laura Waddell) offers to move her carryon so that Travers can have her bag above her seat, Travers doesn’t warm and smile, or even offer a gracious thank you. She sniffs and asks if the passenger’s baby will be a bother. In Los Angeles, she is immune to the glorious sunshine, but not totally immune to Walt Disney’s charm.

Thompson’s Travers has  built her own castle of respectability by being married when P.L. Travers never married, by being English when she was born and raised in Australia in a lower middle-class family and by being so uncharming that no one dares question her status. The lost and disillusioned Ginto no longer exists.

What worse reminder of her pretense than a happy musical made by a man who made hundreds of thousands of children happy?  Besides Disney, she was then surrounded by married men, the Sherman Brothers–Richard Morton Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and the late Robert Bernard Sherman (B.J. Novak).  The real Robert Sherman died last year while this movie was in production (1925-2012). The Sherman Brothers made so many beautiful songs for the movie, ones that ranged from giddily happy “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and melancholy “Feed the Birds.”

Thompson displays that kind of prickliness of a woman who requires order and her way in all things–not because of some serious mental disorder, but because of an emotional deep freeze. If you think the portrayal of Travers is over-the-top, wait until the credits roll.

Hanks has the warmth that Walt Disney emulated in his classic introductions to his TV shows. This Disney is a man who enjoys his celebrity, but also takes his role as a father seriously. The screenwriters do reveal his vice, smoking. We don’t actually see him smoking, but hiding his habit when Travers walks in unannounced.  Walt Disney would die of lung cancer in 1966, two years after the movie “Mary Poppins” premiered. Yet he left a legacy to the world and in the memories of his wife and two daughters.

Schwartzman and Novak as the Sherman Brothers and Bradley Whitford as the co-writer, Don DaGradi (with Bill Walsh who isn’t shown) mesh well as patient men tried almost beyond reason. The audience can sympathize with them as well as Travers. We are reminded that Travers was also a woman in a man’s world and that Disney, DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers were all men of their times.

Ignoring any comments about Dick Van Dyke’s accent and you can enjoy “Mary Poppins” (Amazon Instant) even more knowing that Walt Disney began his quest in 1938 and finally won approval in 1961. Travers was wrong and Disney was right. “Mary Poppins” has gone on to delight children everywhere and remind fathers that they need to learn to laugh and embrace their children’s childhood while they can.

“Mary Poppins” was one of the movies and soundtracks that has charmed fathers and daughters for decades since. Travers couldn’t save her father, but Disney saved both “Mary Poppins” and, in doing so, Mr. Banks.

Director John Lee Hancock guided Sandra Bullock to a Best Actress Oscar win with a based-on-fact movie, “The Blind Side,” and his work here with Thompson and young Buckley shows sensitivity. This isn’t a manipulative tear-jerker although you just might cry a bit.  With screenwriters Kelly Marcel (“Terra Nova”) and Sue Smith (“My Brother Jack”), Hancock has touched on many aspects of growing up female in a man’s world without re-writing history, at least in that respect. Doubtlessly, there were some touchy moments when you’re making a movie about Walt Disney for the studio he built, but should we need any proof that Walt Disney was a good man, I think we can look to his daughters. His elder daughter Miller took on some powerful Los Angelenos to get Disney Hall completed and later helped found a non-profit Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The museum is all about Walt Disney. Since 1997 until her death, Miller public activities swirled around defending her father’s image. In September of this year, she chaired the gala that celebrated Disney Hall’s 10th anniversary.

Even though Miller had said her father was a workaholic, he always had time for his two daughters. My father worked hard and yet like Mr. Banks, he found time to make us kites and we did go fly more than a few kites. I can never hear that song without thinking of my father or the special kites he made us, including one that won an award although the wind broke it as I tried to get it back home. I’m so glad that Disney persevered and brought to the screen “Mary Poppins” and gave the world some of the best Sherman Brothers’ songs.

Walking away from the press screening on the Walt Disney Studios Burbank lot, a few of us lingered to enjoy the holiday decorations. At the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, flowers had been laid in memory of his eldest daughter, Miller. Miller saved Disney Hall and “Saving Mr. Banks” may save or partially salvage the Disney name by helping people outside of Southern California remember Walt Disney as a much beloved father.

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