Reconsidering Walt Disney 2


On New Year’s Eve 2013 David and I watched Saving Mr. Banks, largely because we love Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. At least that was my reason. I didn’t grow up on Disney like most people my age (60). Theater was not a part of my childhood. I had never seen Mary Poppins, although the film assumed everyone had. One couldn’t live in America without being introduced to someone as ubiquitous as Walt Disney or Mary Poppins, could they? 

Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, and P.L. Travers at the premier of Mary Poppins.

 

Despite my lack of exposure I had a negative opinion of Disney for sugar-coating fairy tales, trivializing them. As a storyteller I knew the original versions would “scare the liver out of you”, as my Uncle Dallas used to say. They were intended to do just that: to warn little girls that the big bad wolf is real and it is dangerous to be naïve; to map out an inner journey of transformation through the woods; to instruct all children that our first and second attempts may miss the mark but, if we learn and grow, the third will do the job. Three is a magical number. But I feared that the world of Disney offered magic and rescue rather than character development.

There was another reason. I had grown up on biblical stories where children were thrown into the fiery furnace, men were swallowed by whales or thrown into dungeons. Help came, but from unseen hands, not tweeting bluebirds or nannies with large umbrellas and carpet bags. Life was serious – very serious.

Saving Mr. Banks opens as the Goff family is leaving paradise, their beautiful home in the city, saying goodbye to their nanny, and moving to “the end of the road” in the outback of Australia. Here life is hard, nothing grows in the desert. Even though Mr. Banks cannot solve his own problems, he tells his daughter over and over that she can do anything, go anywhere, and reinforces his message with a sensate experience: by putting her on his horse, bare-back, and galloping – an exhilarating ride! (Perhaps a multi-layered symbol.) His health declines, as do his meager fortunes. This is revealed in flashbacks as the successful children’s author, P. L. Travers is negotiating fiercely with Walt Disney over movie right to “her Mary – who is family.” She cannot bear to see her Mary trivialized with silly jingles and dancing penguins.

This is a remarkable battle of imaginations. What is clearly shown is that P. L. Travers (a pseudonym for Ms. Goff) has overcome tremendous odds for women by breaking into the patriarchal world of the publishing industry and becoming a best-selling author. Her imaginary world has saved her. Mary Poppins, her heroine, can “fix everything.”

And she’s stuck in a rigid story.

Disney, and his creative staff, imagine a larger story, one that will inspire children all over the world: catchy songs, animation, vibrant color, dancing, magic, and hearty laughter. Walt says, “We use our imagination to restore order and give hope to the world.”

Travers won’t budge. The very qualities that helped her succeed in the world of finance and literature are now in the way: she can’t imagine her life story any other way and is determined to stand her ground against the Disney money machine.

I won’t be a spoiler. Obviously the film was made fifty years ago. Saving Mr. Banks is back-story.

As David and I left the theater I admitted to him that I had never seen Mary Poppins. He was incredulous. “We grew up on Mary Poppins. We had the record and listened to the songs over and over.”

“Let’s watch it,” I suggested. And we did. After dinner.

As I suspected, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke were over-the top in their cheerfulness (aah, such young beautiful faces). Against my will, I began tapping my toes to “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Catchy tune. And true.

And I laughed at the preposterousness of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” (Can you spell it?) But, why not. When life throws you a curve ball, sometimes there is nothing else to say. Might as well laugh, sing nonsense, and try to sound precocious.

And, I too, got choked up when Mr. Banks repaired the kite and sang, “Let’s go fly a kite, up to the highest height, let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring. . .” The lyrics and tune are pure genius. Who can resist singing them?

 

Mr. Banks:

With tuppence for paper and strings

You can have your own set of wings

With your feet on the ground

You’re a bird in a flight

With your fist holding tight

To the string of your kite

Oh, oh, oh!

Let’s go fly a kite

Up to the highest height!

Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring

Up through the atmosphere

Up where the air is clear

Oh, let’s go fly a kite!

I’m reconsidering my opinion of Mr Disney. Like Mrs. Travers, I can change my mind.

Disney is a storyteller – as am I. Stories are roadmaps for life. Life is difficult. We all leave Paradise in our own ways and enter the world of adversity that tests our mettle. No one goes there willingly, but adversity is an essential part of the fabric of life. There are no guarantees that we will make our way without being wounded and even defeated.

When our kite is broken, we need “tuppance and paper and string.” The metaphor works. We need imagination to see what is possible, hope that what is broken can still fly, forgiveness for ourselves and others, a community of believing friends and family. Magic. And laughter. Lots of it.

Perhaps Disney was more than a shrewd businessman. Maybe he understood the longings we all have.

All I know is, I can’t get those silly songs out of my head. “Let’s go fly a kite. . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

 


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