I was seven when the movie Mary Poppins came out. That year I dressed as Mary Poppins for Halloween and my mother made me the most exquisite Mary Poppins rag doll for Christmas. I still remember the words to all the songs in the movie. I grew up watching Walt on TV. I even worked at Disney World one summer during college. My daughter also grew up with all things Disney. So as a Disney fan I looked forward to seeing Saving Mr. Banks, the story of the making of Mary Poppins. It’s an entertaining movie, beautifully filmed and filled with great actors giving good performances. But…I kept thinking what’s the real story.
There’s a term called Disneyfication. It’s about repackaging something so it’s sanitized. As an employee at that summer job, I knew you had to fit the Disney look and embrace the brand or you were regulated to “back stage” or you simply didn’t work there.
That’s the nagging thought I kept having while watching this movie. The author of the Mary Poppins books, PL Travers, really didn’t want to be devoured by Micky Mouse. But she needed the money, so she sold her creation. That’s what the conflict in this movie is about. It’s the same conflict some authors have with the Oprah book club or why some musicians don’t want their music played on American Idol. They don’t want to be consumed by the machine.
What was the real story of Helen Goff whose pen name was PL Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins? This movie was set in the same time as the TV series Mad Men. It was not an easy time to be a woman in the workforce in 1964. The only women portrayed in Saving Mr. Banks, other than PL Travers, were secretaries. Was Helen Goff portrayed as a pain in the ass, an unpleasant bitch, because she was a strong-willed woman with a powerful sense of who she was and what she wanted? Was she a woman who was just “leaning in?” I respect the Disney brand, but this brand has whitewashed dark fairy tales that were meant to teach powerful lessons into fluffy entertainment.
Looking up PL Travers online I learn she certainly didn’t fit the Disney mold. Mrs. Travers never married and was known for torrid affairs with men AND women. She adopted a baby who was a twin, but didn’t adopt the other twin sibling. As someone who apparently wasn’t concerned with societal norms, she certainly was not a woman who could easily be told what to do. She was a woman who marched to her own beat and not to a Disney song and dance tune.
Two facts that are documented in the movie are true. One is that she was not invited to the Mary Poppins premier, but came anyway. And the other was that she cried during the premier. Saving Mr. Banks leads you to believe that the tears show she came around to the Disney point of view and was touched by seeing her creation come to life. But maybe we’re seeing a woman cry because she felt she sold her soul to the devil. That’s not, however, a Disney happy ending.
Maybe someday they’ll be another movie about this interesting woman and it’ll not be made by someone invested in preserving Walt’s image. I’m guessing this future movie will have no spoonfuls of sugar, no dancing penguins, and no catchy song or dance numbers. There won’t be the expected happy ending tied up neatly with a bow and perhaps Walt will be cast as the villain. That would be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.