Symptomatic and structuring excess
in Saving Mr. Banks

We can extend and reconsider this tradition by looking more closely at symptomatic contradictions in Saving Mr. Banks, beginning at the level of narrative and its conventional building block, character. In conventional aesthetic terms, one of the more obvious problems with this film is a perceived imbalance between the two parts of its narrative. Several reviewers pointed to it: The long flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia are significantly longer than narratively necessary, and melodramatically excessive. They form a full narrative continuity in the past that overwhelms Travers’ present narrative with childhood guilt and trauma. Furthermore, they are often drenched in the sentimental light of memory and topped with insistent music to drive each repetitive point home again and again.

These flashbacks symptomatically over-explain and oversimplify the adult Travers, who otherwise usually seems a much more complex and conventionally interesting character. If the point is to explain and evoke the reasons for the adult Travers’ behavior in the 1961 story, the film spends way too much time and stylistic energy doing so. That is, rather than saying too little, here the text says too much. Instead of a structuring absence, Saving Mr. Banks evidences a structuring excess. If the film is a social rather than a strictly personal symptom, then it prompts us to ask: What might cause this excess?

To begin with the simplest explanation first, with the script’s genealogy: the producer of a 2002 documentary about Travers, the Australian Ian Collie, commissioned a screenplay by Sue Smith. The project migrated to BBC Films and Ruby Films, where producer Alison Owen hired Kelly Marcel to co-write the script. After several rewrites, the screenplay was good enough to make the Blacklist in 2011, voted by producers as one of the best un-produced screenplays in Hollywood.[121][open endnotes in new window] It was acquired and quickly produced by Disney, where the director, John Lee Hancock, removed one or two scripted scenes set in Australia, which Marcel attributes to her sentimentalizing, “overegging the pudding.”[122] Since it is generally the Australia scenes that sentimentalize and simplify the 1961 story, some of the reasons for the excess of those scenes may lie in the origins of the project.

However, this seems an inadequate explanation for such a significant structural and stylistic problem, which is more likely to be found in the more proximate influence of the Walt Disney Company on the internal structure of its intellectual property. As Marcel acknowledges, Walt Disney is not the antagonist to the fictional Travers’ protagonist; the internally conflicted Travers is her own antagonist.[123] Conventional wisdom dictates that the more complex and multifaceted the antagonist (not necessarily a villain), the better the story. (This is because conventional classical narrative requires exterior conflict between protagonist and antagonist, generating action; if the conflict becomes too interiorized within the protagonist, or becomes more social or institutional, the film becomes less conventional and commodified, resembling art cinema.)

But here is the crux of the problem: the Walt Disney Company puts very narrow, overdetermined limits on the representation of its founder. Saving Mr. Banks must update the simulacrum of Walt Disney, key to its brand and a construct into which the corporation has poured enormous resources for many decades. (A symptom of the corporation’s power in this situation is Marcel’s excessive praise of the company as “incredibly brave” for showing him drinking and smoking, “and I love them for it.”)[124]

So in conventional terms, the film must locate virtually all conflict and complexity within its protagonist, since it is prohibited from exploring major conflicts and complexities in Walt Disney, including the well-documented historical ones. This unbalances the film, oversimplifying Walt Disney, who logically should be a complex antagonist rather than an idealized therapist. In the process Pamela Travers becomes, contradictorily, both a complex adult and someone totally controlled by her past, over-explained with excessive flashbacks. As one critic put it,

“[The Australian story] is thick with dubious sentiment and leavened with glimmers of sensitive wisdom, but the light it casts on the grown-up Mrs. Travers is harshly literal. The film asks us to believe that she is at once an astute storyteller and an emotional automaton entirely lacking in psychological insight.”[125]

The very commercial imperatives of brand building work here against the conventions of commercial classical narrative.

To put this a different way: A Hollywood commercial imperative, even stronger in Disney movies, dictates that the main character must be likeable, someone with whom you can identify and empathize. Disney is trying, despite its institutional mandate to merchandise everything, to occasionally make movies for grownups. This film suggests how difficult the company finds such a process, especially when the film is about itself.[126] Since Travers is so often unpleasant, unhappy, and even mean in order to make Walt, his writers and his beloved film of Mary Poppins into her innocent victims, perhaps the only way to make her more sympathetic is to explain, over and over again in symptomatic overcompensation, why she’s only acting that way because she doesn’t want to let her father down again. Kelly Marcel confirms the filmmakers’ need to make Travers more likeable, noting that the small but important character of Ralph, the limousine driver, was added “late in the first draft…because somebody’s got to like her besides Mickey Mouse,”[127] Mickey being the stuffed toy who seems to be her only friend.

Managing contradictions and conflicts

However, it’s important not to overstate the salience of this symptomatic excess. Though it may cause some viewers to enjoy the film less than they might, most are not likely to understand the causes of the problem if they do notice it, since they lack a critical conceptual framework with which to connect this insight with other, larger issues. So this symptomatic excess is probably a minor and manageable contradiction within the film’s reception. Given the film’s commercial success, the mission of this mission statement has likely been accomplished. As a social text, the film is perhaps being asked to fulfill some contradictory functions, which must be managed not to erase them, but to limit them to marginal notice (like this essay!) or frame them in conventional terms as aesthetic flaws.

Thus it is useful to emphasize not the symptomatic contradictions and conflicts among the parts of the film, but the ways the film ideologically manages these problems—not to make them disappear to everyone but to marginalize them, to construct a reassuring consensus around the film. In this the film at the micro-level may operate in ways analogous to its parent corporation at the macro-level, both of them necessarily generating contradictions that need not be made invisible but only marginal within the public marketplace. I say necessarily because, under the increasingly intensified commodification of consumer capitalism, big-budget studio films are more and more likely to become unstable pastiches of heterogeneous genres, narrative fragments, star personae and visual styles. Each element is designed to appeal to a different demographic or advertise some different merchandise, and the whole package is lightly overlaid with the residual patina of a unified work of art. Viewers are likely to be expecting less a unified aesthetic experience (whatever that is) than a series of “intensities” or pleasurable impressions lightly strung together.[128] Certainly Saving Mr. Banks demonstrates some of these characteristics.

And at the macro-level, a global corporation as large as Disney can manage its precious brand without erasing or even minimizing every contradiction in corporate behavior. If some Americans and Europeans don’t like the company’s racist or sexist products or its exploitative labor practices, it probably matters less as long as a lot of Chinese don’t complain. And there’s limited evidence that consumers acting as citizens, asking Disney to act like a corporate citizen as well, have had much direct influence on Disney’s behavior.

Mythically resolving conflicts:
the musical genre and the melodrama

A complementary perspective that emphasizes the mythical or ideological resolution of social conflicts centers on genre. In her analysis of the classic (especially MGM) musical, Jane Feuer demonstrates its reflexive, self-justifying qualities. Musicals collapse the distance between movie performers spontaneously singing and dancing their feelings, the audiences for those performances represented in the films, and the audiences of the musicals themselves. And many if not most of these films are backstage musicals, about putting on a show, which happens to be the show we are seeing. Musicals often celebrate themselves and the musical genre itself.[129]

We can understand Saving Mr. Banks in generic terms as a domestic melodrama about P.L. Travers’ traumatized family in the past threatening to destroy Walt Disney’s vision for the family in Mary Poppins in the film’s present and future. And Disney’s vision is Mary Poppins as a musical, with the future realized and the family saved through the symbolic triumph of the musical genre over the melodrama. The world premiere of the musical that is his Mary Poppins climactically relegates Travers’ family melodrama to the dead past, reflexively justifying the value of the musical genre itself as the last shots show the young Helen Goff saying farewell to the past and her now-redeemed father. Thus the tragic family melodrama from the past frames Saving Mr. Banks at beginning, end, and throughout, with a 1961 backstage comedy/drama trying to emerge from inside it, and an already beloved 1964 Disney musical comedy trying to emerge from both. As a backstage musical, the film parallels the maturation of the show, seen in script conferences and initial performances, with the maturation of the trauma in the past that threatens to prevent the show from realization. To the backstage musical element the film adds a bit of the more recent “making-of” genre, trying to activate the audience’s nostalgia for Mary Poppins.

Thus Saving Mr. Banks can be usefully understood as a hybrid of the family melodrama and the musical that performs a kind of competition between these two genres, with the 1961 backstage comedy/drama mediating between them. Although historically P.L. Travers’ life and writings were not melodramatic, Disney’s film associates her with this genre. And since Disney films are usually musicals about characters who sing and dance their feelings, the film associates Disney with the musical genre. Walt takes Travers to Disneyland, and she begins to smile as they ride on a musical carousel that reminds her of a happy moment in her youth. Then, as the conflicts between Travers and Disney’s writers sharpen and Travers reveals her key melodramatic goal not to let her father down again, the writers respond by turning the writing room into a musical performance space, along with the receptionist singing and dancing Travers’ heart’s desire, and Travers joins them in singing and dancing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” They successfully counter the relative realism of melodrama with the utopian stylization of the musical, with its expressive unity of emotion, character and performer (and, hopefully, viewer).

A key Disney commodity:
musical comedy, mixing live action and animation

Complementing the narrativized competition between genres is a parallel contrast between live action and animation. Travers’ hostility to having her Mary Poppins singing and dancing is overcome when she saves her father, in imagination, through singing and dancing, but she still cannot accept cartoons. However, a central element in the Disney commodity is musical comedy plus animation, and everyone agrees that Travers cried during the film’s premiere showing. So although Travers herself (confirmed by Marcel) says she cried because she disliked the film, Saving Mr. Banks makes Travers’ tears into her climactic catharsis, the fulfillment of Walt’s paternal promise and the final redemption of her own Mr. Banks. Feuer says that the musical film mythically resolves all social conflicts within the utopian stylization of performance, and Disney’s addition of animation adds a further level of stylized fantasy to the musical genre as cartoon penguins dance with live action characters. Drawings and human actors are harmonized through Disney magic, figuring the harmonizing of more mundane and earthly conflicts. But as Walt, at the premiere sitting behind Travers and noticing that she is sobbing as Mr. Banks is saved onscreen, tries to comfort her, she says, “I can’t abide cartoons,” thus denying what viewers are likely to understand as her true feelings.

Like Walt in this scene, viewers are invited to conclude that you just can’t make everybody happy. While Saving Mr. Banks reflexively celebrates the musical genre within itself and the genre’s magical ability to transcend the gulf between live action and animation, it identifies and labels the adults who resist, or claim to resist, its magic. They are a small, marginal group that resists the full, transcendent Disney happiness. Though Walt has saved her Mr. Banks and rejuvenated her life, she is less than grateful, the film suggests. Since the company has made untold billions through Disneyfying dozens of stories in the public domain, and bought many others cheaply from their authors, it is tempting to speculate that this ending, while on its surface redemptive, also constitutes a kind of corporate revenge on a stubborn author who fought them, took them, needed them and fought them some more for a half century. After her death, the corporation gets the last word.

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