Tag Archives: Mary Poppins

Save the father, save the world

mrbanks

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

First uttered on screen by Dick Van Dyke in 1964, those words are whispered again by the unlikely voice of Colin Farrell as Saving Mr. Banks begins, over vistas of turn-of-the-last-century Australia and the dream-lost face of the young Helen Goff, who will grow up to become author P.L. Travers and the creator of Mary Poppins.  In short order we leap forward from the idyll to early 1960’s England, where the adult Travers (Emma Thompson) remains, after 20 years of attempts by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to purchase the film rights from her, stubborn in her determination to avoid having her beloved creation bowdlerized by uncouth Americans who don’t seem to understand what the story is about, or, more importantly, what it means to her.  Drawn in for the moment by the allure of some much-needed funds, Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles to work with the creative team on the screenplay for Mary Poppins – “work with” meaning shoot down almost every single idea – while resisting Disney’s personal charm offensive.   The unstoppable force meets the immovable object, and as the movie proceeds along two time-separated narratives, we see the girl trying to save her treasured father from his deterioration, and the woman fighting to preserve his memory from people she thinks are only interested in exploiting it for the sake of a mediocre cartoon.

Much like the movie whose conception it depicts, there are no villains in Saving Mr. Banks; only goodhearted people attempting to do the right thing, whether it is Farrell as Travers’ father reacting to every setback with a twinkle in his eye and spring in his step, or the increasingly exasperated but always smiling screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) struggling to meet the impossible conditions put forth by the uncooperative Travers during interminable meetings.  Particularly touching is the relationship that develops between Travers and her sunny limo driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti); while first treating him as an ill-informed Yankee, she comes to see him as a true friend, and is inspired to pass along to Ralph’s physically challenged daughter the proof that disabilities are not the same thing as limitations.  But misunderstandings abound, naturally, and this is probably the first screenplay in the history of Hollywood where the crisis point at the end of the second act involves whether or not penguins are to be animated.  (As an aside, it’s also the first screenplay to my knowledge where a character utters my last name:  checking into her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel only to find it’s been filled with Disney stuffed animals as welcome gifts, Travers shoves aside a Winnie the Pooh and grumbles “Ugh, A.A. Milne.”  I – what’s the expression – fangirl squeed?)

I’m a sucker for movies about Hollywood, particularly old Hollywood, and the attention to detail in recreating the feel of the Disney production offices (and Disneyland itself) of the early 60’s is impeccable.  The performances, especially Thompson’s, are elegant, the cinematography is lush, and the score is full of life and hope.  Magic exudes from each frame.  But despite the central conflict between Travers’ obstinacy and Disney’s persistence that is the focus of the trailers, the movie is about fathers, and the complex relationships we continue to have with them long after they are gone.  That is where Saving Mr. Banks packs its most powerful emotional punch.  Like Hamlet, the ghost of the father looms in every scene – Travers Goff, the man who helped the young “Ginty” unlock her imagination and set her on the path to becoming a storyteller, honored posthumously in her choice of surname for her writing career.  Befuddled by the author’s seemingly irrelevant demands on the script, articulated by frustrated Bob Sherman who pointedly queries, “What does it matter?”, Walt Disney initially misses the mark, thinking that Mary Poppins comes to save the children.  We have the benefit of hindsight, having watched, dozens of times, David Tomlinson as George Banks evolve from curmudgeonly drone to a man full of life and wonder and joy.  The children don’t even say goodbye to Mary Poppins when she leaves, but they don’t have to, as her spirit has found a new home in their own dear father.  Late in Saving Mr. Banks, Disney relates to Travers a tale of his own upbringing in wintry Missouri and of his difficult relationship with his hard-driving father Elias, and the two creative forces finally find their connection – a shared desire to redeem the old man.

Being someone’s child is taking on the responsibility of their legacy, willing or not.  In the movie, Ginty cannot understand why her beloved father is falling apart before her eyes, and she struggles to help him preserve his happiness and his dignity, even where her efforts are unintentionally harmful.  In creating the character of George Banks, P.L. Travers wanted (the movie posits, at least) to give her father the happy ending he could never find for himself.  When she sees him depicted on screen, and when she experiences the joy of the audience in watching him triumph, she weeps.  My father died when I was 11, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a significant portion of why I do what I do is trying to ensure that his name is regarded in perpetuity as highly as I think it should be – the same name (though different family) P.L. Travers mouths onscreen.  He was the person I experienced stories with.  Reading to me, and with me, taking me to the movies, kindling a lifelong love of narrative and of imagination and promise lying within pages and celluloid.  He used to let me borrow his handheld dictaphone so I could record my own imaginary episodes of The A-Team (don’t ask).  He’d let me fill LP-sized floppy disks from his office computer full of chapters of an unfinished attempted novel about a boy and his racehorse.   And though he died long before I ever began to take writing seriously, every time I sit down at the keyboard I’m hoping that it will turn out to be something he would have liked, that he would have boasted to his friends and colleagues about.  (Knowing him, he’d boast about it even if it was an illiterate pile of tripe.)  And perhaps, beneath the veil of different characters in settings far removed from that available to a small-town attorney, I’m trying to give him his happy ending too.  In the theater, I felt in my soul that primal need of Travers to do right by her dad.  To save him.  And a tear escaped my eye as it did hers.

For too short a time, they’re our whole world.  Eventually, our chances to talk with them are gone, to ask them questions that never would have occurred to us while they were alive, questions we thought we’d have time for someday.  When we were sharing a beer after staining the back deck together on a hot Sunday afternoon.  When we were tossing the football back and forth between three generations upon park grass touched with the first autumn frost.  Those scenarios aren’t possible now, so we try to replicate them in fiction.  We forge characters who ask the questions we can’t, and let them seek their answers, secure as we type that they will reach their destination and achieve the closure that eludes us.  When the stake is so personal, we comprehend why P.L. Travers did not want to give Mary Poppins up.  Mary wasn’t a character, she was a mission.  So was Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney.  It’s not easy to abdicate such a soulful responsibility, to hand over a legacy.  I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer for that, would you?  However, there may come a time when I’m willing to let go, to share the father I knew with a world that deserves to know him the way I did.  I can only hope that it’s in a manner as befitting as Mary Poppins, or Saving Mr. Banks.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part IV

spaceship earth

The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was Walt Disney’s prophetic vision of how we would be living today; a vast city thriving on the substance of its connections.  Walt wanted people to live and work there, but after his passing the Disney corporation decided they did not want to be in the business of running a municipality (ironically, Disney does operate its own municipality, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which manages the land on which the Walt Disney World Resort sits) and instead transformed Epcot into what they knew they could run well – another theme park.  Famously derided by the likes of none other than Homer Simpson, who wailed “it’s even boring to fly over!”, Epcot has long been an oddity, its ultimate purpose somewhat out of sync with the predominant Disney mantra of just coming to play and be a kid again.  Throughout the evolution of its exhibits from opening day in 1982 it’s always been the more mature, educational counterpart to the whimsy of the Magic Kingdom, the fairy dust harder to see in the polished presentation of the technology of the future and the many shades of our present.  This is the park for the grownups.  Epcot the Expo.  Divided into two distinct lands, Future World and World Showcase, and presided over by the imposing sphere (or overgrown golf ball, depending on your attitude) that is Spaceship Earth, Epcot is more linear; easier to find your way around, harder to lose your way amid winding paths.  Yet for some reason I never feel I’ve truly arrived at Disney until I’ve reached Epcot.

There is an indelible scent to Spaceship Earth that speaks to my distant memory like trumpets heralding the return of a long-absent pilgrim.  A peculiar brew of industrial strength air conditioning, special effects smoke and wheel lubricant combines into a unique visceral trigger, the feel of the arm of an old friend draped around my shoulder.  What is ostensibly Epcot’s signature attraction offers a journey back through 35,000 years of human history, with the voice of Judi Dench guiding you from a frozen plain where primitive man hurls spears at mammoths in unforgiving darkness, through the development of written language and the spread of civilization across the planet made possible by the phenomenon of communication.  Drifting past animatronic humans painting glyphs on cave walls, an Egyptian slave pounding out reeds into papyrus, toga-clad Greeks delivering a lecture on mathematics and Arab scholars sharing opinions over a hookah, anyone who calls himself a writer cannot fail to appreciate the significance of what is unfolding before him and the small, yet important part that he plays in this ongoing saga.  (He is particularly moved when he sees Gutenberg examining the first printed copy of the Bible.)  Humanity defines itself by the sharing of its ideas, the stories we tell to each other and the method by which those stories are passed on, long beyond our mere mortal existence.  A mind raised in the presence of the Internet can scarcely fathom the limitations faced by our ancestors, the incredible patience needed to etch history into brick and mortar.  We live in a time when it is easy, too easy some might argue, to fire off every thought to the entire world in real time, with a few keystrokes and a click, regardless of whether those thoughts have any lasting value.  The democratization of communication gives everyone equal ability to mouth off at the celebrity whose last movie we hated or whose political opinions make our skin crawl, without the need to consider our words first.  Passion drives communication as it never has before, as ink no longer needs to be bought by the barrel and rationed out only to the reasoned.  Spaceship Earth‘s main presentation ends with a facsimile of Steve Wozniak building a personal computer in his garage in the late 1970’s, but if the golf ball was bigger, perhaps it might be updated to advance thirty years and show us where we are now – to remind us that as trifling as they may seem in the moment, our communications are our legacy to the generations to come, as much as those dusty scrolls in the ancient libraries are the legacy of those who preceded us.  Every precious word is written into the future.  One way time travel, as it were.

Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.
Spaceship Earth‘s Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.

Beyond the confines of Future World lies World Showcase, the part the kids usually find boring.  It is a collection of eleven pavilions each dedicated to a different country and staffed exclusively by citizens of those far-flung lands.  Walking clockwise you can stroll through Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK and finally Canada.   The pavilions are sponsored by private corporations from the countries in question (with the exception of Morocco, which is sponsored by its government) and each features a signature restaurant and souvenir shops, where other attractions may vary.  Mexico and Norway are the only two with actual rides inside, while Canada and China feature movies and The American Adventure contains an animatronic show about the founding of the United States.  If you’re walking by at the right time you may chance to encounter characters, buskers or live bands.  And for the littler ones staving off yawns there’s an interactive adventure based on Phineas & Ferb that encourages them to hunt through the Showcase in search of clues while their parents ponder purchasing a kimono in Japan or getting henna applied in Morocco.  You’d think that Canada would be my favorite of the undectet, shameless patriot that I am, eh (despite my non-adherence to the rules of Canadian English spelling), but my soft spot here at Epcot has always been for the UK.

Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.
Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.

Anglophile leanings aside, regardless that a Beatles tribute band can often be found performing in a nearby gazebo and Mary Poppins is usually on hand to advise on how to say supercalafragilisticexpialadocious backwards, what endears this place to me is a memory of my father attached indelibly to it.  About three or four times a day a group of improvisational players gathers in the square and invites members of the audience to take part in a humorous spoof, jape or vignette drawn from the annals of that fine British tradition of pantomime.  The first time we ever visited Epcot they picked my dad to join in, and I’m sure his boisterous manner didn’t factor into it at all (he may possibly have jumped up and down to volunteer).  When I walk these pink pathways and look around the corner past the pub I can see him again, reaching for the rafters as he crumples to the ground with a plastic sword tucked under his arm while the players narrate “And he died… OVER THERE!”, pointing six paces to his left and forcing him to get up sheepishly and walk over and do it all again.  Olivier he was not, but he loved being part of that sort of thing, ever happy to look a bit silly to give a stranger a laugh.  I come by a bit of it myself, to be honest, and I’m often the first to raise my hand when a similar enterprise arises.  It feels like paying tribute to the late great old man, and so walking through the faux-UK at Epcot is too akin to the metaphorical laying of flowers for someone long gone.

But back to Future World, to The Land, and the most popular ride in Epcot, Soarin’.  It’s not uncommon that the fast passes for this ride are all snapped within a scant few hours of the park’s opening, it remains that popular.  Seinfeld‘s Puddy, Patrick Warburton, plays the chief flight attendant welcoming you aboard your 5-minute trip over the scenic vistas of California, set to a majestic score composed by the late, legendary Jerry Goldsmith.  You are seated in “gliders” that are raised high above the floor before a massive screen, and the film that projects before you brings you sweeping through the clouds over San Francisco Bay, through Yosemite National Park, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, Monterey and Anza-Borrego to name but merely a few.  The experience is not only visual as you are also greeted by the scent of citrus as you sail over orange groves and of salt mist as you watch surfers tumble.  Goldsmith too modifies the arrangement of his theme as it evolves to give appropriate flavor to both the natural wonders and the human achievements rushing toward you, before a fireworks finale over Anaheim Disneyland introduced by Tinkerbell heralds your inevitable return to earth.

soarin

I’m uncomfortable with heights, so I had every reason to expect that this experience would leave me dizzy, gripping the sides of the glider in nauseated panic.  But just as the theme song to Firefly insists “you can’t take the sky from me,” even acrophobics can come to understand the pull the clouds can exert upon those of us fated to stand on solid ground and gaze up at them in resignation.  A few years ago when my wife and I were in the Dominican I signed on reluctantly to try parasailing, and only after putting it off to our last day.  What surprised me most as the parachute dragged us up, up and away, was the silence of the sky, the utter peace to be found less than a hundred meters up.  The ground is a noisy place and we’ve all become inured to the persistent drone of our 21st Century lives – mechanical equipment, inane conversations, half-assed music played on repeat.  Dial all that down to zero, banish the distraction, and you find a hitherto unknown treasure buried beneath – a chance to hear the spirit speak.  In a theme park dedicated to the wonders of communication, Soarin’ is a reminder of the greatest communication you can have, and one you owe to yourself sooner rather than later.  It’s a chance to think about who you are, the sum of your contradictions and the difference between the face you present to the world and the true shape of your inner self that lies hidden behind it.  To unite the sense of the present with the memory of the past and the dreams of the future and find that the answer leaves you smiling.

It’s possible that’s why Epcot completes the equation for me, why it’s what makes me feel most like I’m back.  I could go on at length about our experiences this time at some of the other favorite attractions; my son’s insistence on riding Mission: Space four times so he could fill each different crew position, his chance to have a conversation with an animated character from Finding Nemo at Turtle Talk with Crush.  Those family memories will be added to the extensive cache getting ever larger with each visit; complaining at the age of 8 that I didn’t like the food in the restaurant in the German pavilion (nein to your schnitzel!), watching IllumiNations around the World Showcase Lagoon on New Year’s 1990, listening to the Future Corps play the Jetsons Theme on a trip there with my high school band in 1993.  Ask me what I did a week or two before or after those individual moments and I’ll give you a master class in blank stares.  But decades later, here I am, transcribing these moments for the world and understanding that they, like those hieroglyphics on the pyramid walls, will now outlive me.  Writing into the future.  Just beyond the park entrance, before you reach Spaceship Earth, lie a series of obelisks on which Disney allowed guests to “Leave a Legacy” – a small, laser-etched photograph of yourself to be mounted there for all time.  The program was discontinued for whatever reason so a majority of space on the obelisks remains unfilled.  Yet it doesn’t really matter that I don’t have a picture of my face waiting to see me again at Epcot.  The true legacy is something I take with me when I go, etched in my mind, inspiring me far beyond the borders of Walt Disney World and Florida.

illuminations

Loud and long and clear

David Tomlinson as George Banks.

The death this week of composer Robert B. Sherman at the age of 86, one half of the famed Sherman Brothers, is a tremendous loss for the world of music.  The name might not immediately ring familiar, but his body of work certainly would.  Beginning in 1961 with The Parent Trap, Sherman’s prolific collaboration with brother Richard was the soundtrack for millions of childhoods – films like The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and most famously, Mary Poppins.  Kids learned Sherman Brothers songs along with “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old MacDonald.”  They were catchy, upbeat and relentlessly optimistic – songs that just made you feel good and want to learn all the words.  This was all the more remarkable given Sherman’s service in World War II, and that he had led Allied forces into the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 shortly after it had been abandoned by the Germans.  To have seen such horror and to come out the other side with one’s faith in humanity intact is simply remarkable – not to mention retaining the ability to communicate that faith through art.

It is perhaps that spirit of unflappable positivity that continues to endear Mary Poppins to one generation after another.  To me, the secret of its appeal has always laid in its unsung hero, the man the story is truly about:  uptight financier and family patriarch George Banks, played perfectly by David Tomlinson, an actor who never achieved movie star wattage, but was always highly regarded by his peers as a good and honourable soul – qualities that he brought to what is perhaps his iconic part.  Mary is charming, Bert is a happy-go-lucky goofball (dodgy Cockney accent and all) and the kids are cute without being cloying, but the movie is George’s story through and through.  George starts the movie as a man of business – Ebenezer Scrooge without the cruelty or sneering condescension at the less fortunate.  He is a man locked into the machine, always dressed in black and white, very much accustomed to his place as one of the cogs that drives the British economy.  And he has come to believe that this is how his family should operate as well – his opening number, “The Life I Lead,” details with clockwork precision how he wants his household to run; like a bank.  He has truly put aside childish things and buried his imagination beneath his bowler hat.  Indeed, he is a man for whom the audience feels great sympathy, because he is good and kind, but lost.  His eventual triumph, when, after having been ritually sacked, he bursts into laughter at rediscovering the mirth inherent in life, is like watching pure joy unfold before your eyes.  It’s a liberating reminder that things can indeed be “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – it’s all in how we choose to look at them.  And we can find a Buddha-like tranquility and fulfillment in just going to fly a kite.

One has to wonder if the message would have resonated as strongly without the Sherman Brothers’ wonderful songs to deliver it.  Something that has always perplexed me when it comes to criticism, whether it’s music, film or literature, is the seeming bias against work that conveys a positive message.  Critics tend to go for bleak and raw, the ugliest emotions stripped to their very bone.  Certainly there is merit in such work; we cannot present a fair and accurate portrait of humanity without acknowledging its inherent duality and contradictions, the best and the worst of us.  But uplifting art is often dismissed as candy, as artifice of the most deceptive kind.  No, Mary Poppins is not Taxi Driver, and the Sherman Brothers’ songs aren’t Radiohead.  But ask yourself how you want to feel.  Does anyone really enjoy being depressed?  Do we not always crave the light?  Is there perhaps more truth to be found in the songs of a man like Robert Sherman, who saw the worst of humanity and still found reason to celebrate life, than in those of a  latter day pretender whose worst tribulation was that their high school crush didn’t return their affections?  Would anyone’s needs be served by watching George Banks crashing and burning and leaving his family bereft?  Pish posh, I say.  Instead, we are lifted as he completes his journey and achieves enlightenment.

To me, art that appeals to our sense of hope is infinitely more valuable and truthful than that which wallows in the cesspool of despair.  It’s easy and a cop out to be depressed at the state of the world.  But let’s be honest – like the Mary Poppins Sherman Brothers song goes, we all still love to laugh.  So I can close today with a quote from George Banks that never fails to make me smile:

“I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith.”

“What’s the name of his other leg?”