By Jennifer Roback Morse

Why do we love Saving Mr. Banks? We have been flocking to see it. Not a single frame of the film is wasted. But what makes it a masterpiece? I think we love this story because the redemption story it tells is one we never tire of hearing.

The word “Disney” has become synonymous with cutesy, sugarcoated escapism. But that is not what Disney studios have offered us here. Nor is it the image the film paints of Walt Disney himself.

For those who missed the hit of the Christmas season, here is the basic story line of Saving Mr. Banks. Walt Disney tried for 20 years to obtain the movie rights from P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. Mrs. Travers is a difficult Englishwoman. She fusses over every detail of the script. “No cartoons.” “Not your Mr. Dick Van Dyke. Laurence Olivier is great.” (Can you imagine Laurence Olivier playing Bert the chimney sweep?) “No made-up words.” This pronouncement inspires a truly hilarious yet compact scene, no more than a look and a gesture really, of the Sherman brothers (music and lyrics) concealing the sheet music for “Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious.”

But we discover that Mrs. Travers is not whom she appears to be. She is not really English, but Australian. She is not really tough and bossy, but fragile and vulnerable. She is not really even Pamela Travers. She is Helen Goff: she changed her name to adopt the name of her beloved late father, Travers Goff.

Her father was an alcoholic: a falling-down-drunk ne’er-do-well unemployable irresponsible bum. And Helen adored him. He was imaginative and funny and loveable. And he adored Helen.

We skip back and forth between a little girl in the Australian outback who loves her father, and the grown woman who aggravates the entire Walt Disney studio. The little girl is whimsical and spontaneous. The grown woman is staid and difficult. The little girl is willing to overlook anything and forgive her father everything. The grown woman overlooks nothing and forgives nothing. We come to realize that she fashioned Mary Poppins to try to redeem her father.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney explains this all to her, and to us, in a speech that will go down in movie history as truly great. The nanny Mary Poppins doesn’t come to save the children. She comes to save their father, Mr. Banks. Disney implores Mrs. Travers, really Helen, to trust him with her characters. He will make people love Mr. Banks. People will love him, will feel for him, and will rejoice with him. In that way, Mr. Banks and Travers Goff will be redeemed.

We learn that Walt Disney, too, had suffered. He had a difficult and demanding father. But this did not make him bitter.

Disney becomes a Christ-figure, in that he unites his suffering as a little boy, with Helen’s suffering as a little girl. He promises that his new ending to the story will redeem her past heartbreak, as well as her fathers’ shame and suffering.

Disney studios could have made an annoyingly self-referential piece, applauding their own making of Mary Poppins. Instead, Saving Mr. Banks captures exquisitely a child’s love for her deeply flawed father, and the human face of cultural icon, Walt Disney. Through the child’s eyes, we see the deepest yearning of the human heart, to love and be loved. Through his eyes, we see the possibility of hope.

In effect, this film skips over a generation. It is set in the 1960’s, when neither Disney nor the public at large was embarrassed of explicitly religious themes such as forgiveness and deliverance. Disney unashamedly wanted to make people happy. And he did, without people feeling manipulated or patronized.

In the troubled years that followed that innocent time, people developed harder edges. The post-modern mind sneers at redemption and the God-man who brought it to us. A feminist would not have wanted Travers Goff to be forgiven for what he inflicted on his wife and children. The feminist would have wanted her to leave him and be free. Or something.

But in our time, people are fed up with running for the exits. I sense that people are ready to look once more, from the child’s point of view. The fact is the child always wants the parents to get it together. We don’t want to condemn the father, just as little Helen did not want to condemn him. We want him to behave. Kids are always waiting for their parents to grow up and behave themselves. Sometimes that waiting is the only act of love we can offer for the imperfect people around us.

And that is why we love Tom Hanks and Walt Disney and Travers Goff and Helen Goff and P.L. Travers. We’ve had enough of the story of how people hit the road, became free and never came back. We want to hear the story of how people pulled themselves together and put their families back together, stronger and better than before.

That is the story we never tire of hearing. And that just happens to be the cosmic Christian story of redemption and hope, writ small in each of our lives.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the President of the Ruth Institute. Their “Healing the 21st Century Family” conference will be held in San Diego, February 15, 2014.
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