Monday, August 05, 2013

Saving Mr. Disney

No other success can compensate for failure in the home.
--attributed to J. E. McCullough
ave you seen the previews yet for the upcoming Disney biopic Saving Mr. Banks?

When I first read the premise behind this film, I wasn't particularly keen on it. After all, Hollywood biopics aren't known for their historical accuracy (I'm looking pointedly at A Beautiful Mind and Words and Music right now), especially when executive producers believe the moviegoing public would reject the truth behind the story. Above all, Hollywood always knows on which side its bread is buttered. Nor was I sold on the idea of casting Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, simply because it may be impossible for anyone but Walt Disney himself to play that role accurately.

Nonetheless, after having seen the trailer I am really looking forward to this film, and I'll tell you why.

The shoes of Walt Disney are extraordinarily difficult to fill because, by all accounts, the man himself was larger than life -- an optimistic futurist, a firm believer in the impossible, a lover of story and a showman extraordinaire. When the Sherman brothers wrote the lyric, "A man has dreams of walking with giants / To carve his niche in the edifice of time," one gets the sense they were referring not to Mr. Banks, but to their employer. Disney had big dreams, but unlike most of the other men and women around him, he possessed the personal drive to make those dreams reality. By 1963, the year Mary Poppins went into production, he had spent over 40 years of his life in the entertainment business -- going from cartoon shorts to full-length animated features to live-action films to nature documentaries to television and theme parks. But the pursuit of these dreams came with a price: a certain amount of familial neglect. Disney was married with two daughters he only rarely saw, in between making movies and pouring the concrete foundations for Disneyland. In fact, he had spent so much time creating entertainment for other people's families that he almost never made time for his own, and this ironic truth appears to have become the singular tragedy of his life by the early 1960s, with his daughters grown and gone.

Walt Disney metaphorically courted Pamela Travers for some 15 years, trying to get her permission to make a film of her book. While he may have told her that he had to honor a promise to his children to make a movie from one of their favorite stories, by the time Travers finally acquiesced, the keeping of that promise would have meant very little to his adult daughters. But by then it meant something far more to Walt Disney. His own mistakes were water under the bridge by then -- besides, the smoker's cough that constantly heralded his arrival was getting worse, and he must have suspected he was living on borrowed time -- but he could warn other families with workaholic parents not to tread the same path. And he did so, brilliantly, with the story arc of Mary Poppins. It begins with emotionally absent parents who are so wrapped up in their own ambitions that they have become largely indifferent to the plight of their children, and ends with a family that will probably never again hire a nanny -- because the hearts of both parents and children have finally turned to each other.

Although the company that bears his name is best known for using the Pinocchio song "When You Wish Upon A Star" as its signature piece, Disney's own reputed favorite song was a Sherman brothers original from Mary Poppins: "Feed the Birds." Robert Sherman recalled that Disney would stop by on Friday afternoons to speak privately with the brothers about their work, and at such times he often requested that they play the song. The music and lyrics, all focused on the necessity of charity, must have meant something to him on a very personal level. Sherman said of Walt's reaction to the song, "you could just see Walt thinking, 'That's what it's all about, everything we do at Disney.'" I think that was why he pursued the making of this film so doggedly -- it was his way of making sure that he left a final message about the importance of families loving each other first, and letting everything else fall into place behind that one essential idea.

And if they can get even some of this information across in Saving Mr. Banks, it will be well worth seeing. Anyway, that's one woman's opinion.

No comments: