I have a love/hate relationship with Disney. Whenever I visit the Magic Kingdom, or see their castle logo pop up before a movie, I am torn about how to feel.
On the one hand, I simply adore the man, Walt himself, whom I consider a visionary genius. Never mind whether or not he could draw Mickey (he could and did, but not as well as Ub Iwerks), Walt’s drive and passion gave us the empire of dreams Disney is known for. I love Walt because of his optimism. “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires, will come to you …” This was at the core of his beliefs, what empowered him to do what everyone said was impossible. He shared this optimism with the world, the idea that life can be magical if we only believe. His was an infectious vision, and it’s what drives people to his parks to this day. Disney has always been more than an entertainment brand. It’s a philosophy. Before losing his bout with lung cancer in 1966, Walt dreamed of a futuristic city, where art and commerce and education merged, and where people could get around without cars. His plan was, perhaps, too ambitious, and his dream died with him. What we got, instead, was another park, EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).
On the other hand, the Disney Corporation has become like a virus, subsuming all other pop culture. Their Marvel purchase was part of a crass marketing strategy, because for the past few decades, they have wanted to lure boys with their brand, as if the adoration of millions of girls worldwide wasn’t enough. But when they went on to buy Star Wars, I was downright heartbroken. As much as I adore the Disney “can-do” philosophy, we should all be concerned when each and every idea comes out of the same mouth, through the same boardroom filter. The hand of the mega-conglomerate can already be felt in the Star Wars universe. For instance, the Clone Wars animated series dealt with some pretty heady and unconventional issues. In one episode, the banking clan funding the war is found to be bribing politicians, allegorically reflecting a lot of what’s been happening in the real world. Disney, no doubt, feared that such heavy material might alienate more conservative viewers, so after buying Lucasfilm, Clone Wars was immediately canceled, and replaced by the much tamer and kid friendly/”good guy vs. bad guy” Rebels. I love Disney, and I love Star Wars, but I do not want “Star Wars brought to you by Disney.” The Jedi philosophy centers around Buddhism, and selflessness, not making your dreams come true, not “wishing upon a star…”
But what many people do not realize, the Disney Corporation has been acquiring franchises for a long time. So far, they have purchased Winnie the Poo, Jim Henson’s The Muppets, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and even ESPN, among others. Walt himself was known to seek properties to adapt into films, the most famous of which is, perhaps, Mary Poppins, based on the book by P.L. Travers. Though the 1964 film was a smash success, the author hated it. In the 2013 film, Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks (who else?) woos Travers into signing off the rights to the character, but she disliked the songs, the script, and was opposed to the animation. And my question is, why? Did the movie stray too far from the source? Was it wrong in tone? I had to find out.
Like all British authors, Travers has a special way with words. But as I started into the book, it quickly dawned on me that Mary Poppins is no Harry Potter. There is very little for older readers to appreciate, and even as a book for kids, it has scarcely any plot or character development. Bert, the chimney sweep so memorably played by Dick VanDyke, shows up in just one chapter. And the children, Jane and Michael, don’t have personalities of their own, serving as proxies for the reader. Even the titular star, Mary Poppins, is a bit 2-dimensional, and far less likable than in the film. She seems, at times, strict to the point of being mean, never discussing any of the strange goings on (no singing in this one), and is also quite fixated on her looks, never passing a reflective surface without stopping to stare at herself. Fortunately, Disney makes clever use of her vanity in the movie.
In Saving Mr. Banks, the father of Jane and Michael, Mr. Banks, is said to be based on Travers own father (who also worked at a bank); and in both films, there is an effort to “save him” from his emotional detachment as a parent. The song, Let’s Go Fly a Kite, addresses the matter, after which Mr. Banks comes to the epiphany that there is more to life than punctuality and finance. Surprisingly, none of this is in the book. Mary Poppins reads less as a novel, and more as a series of connected short stories, where strange, surrealistic things happen, which reminded me a lot of Alice in Wonderland. What is perhaps most perplexing is the author’s aversion to animation. There are a great many films better suited to live action. Tarzan, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are good examples. But when you have a story about talking bears dressed like ushers, dancing penguins, and stars that come down to Earth to go Christmas shopping, it forces me to wonder, what in the world did Travers expect?
I can understand why Walt Disney saw Marry Poppins as an ideal match for his studio, and given the kinds of crazy, surrealist happenings Travers writes about, it is hard to understand why she would not have been delighted to make a deal with him. While the movie deviates considerably from the book, mostly due to time restraints, it is very true in spirit, and in many ways improves upon a story that was barely there to begin with. Perhaps, more importantly, is the contribution made by Julie Andrews, one of the most charismatic women to ever grace the silver screen. Andrews’ expressions, and the way she speaks her lines, transforms Travers’ fussy, hard-nosed nanny into someone lovable, so that, by the end of the film, when Poppins flies away on her umbrella, it’s easy to relate to Jane’s and Michael’s tearful goodbyes.
Also, you just can’t beat this song,