I just saw “Saving Mr. Banks”. To my surprise, it was nothing like “Saving Private Ryan”. Regardless, it was a good flick. Without spoiling much, Walt Disney ends up convincing writer P.L. Travers to hand over the rights to her beloved “Mary Poppins”. Throughout the film, Ms. Travers struggles in letting her characters go to be turned into a typical, jolly, Disney musical filled with laughter, joy, cheer, redemption—all of the things that Ms. Travers knows all too well rarely find their way into the truths of the world.
There is a line in the film, where Ms. Travers is told that Dick Van Dyke, “one of the greats”, will be playing the character of Bert. Her response is that of pretentious laughter as she tells her silly American counterparts that Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness are the greats, not slap-stick-happy Dick Van Dyke. At which point, I wanted to scream out at the top of my lungs: “What! Dick Van Dyke! He did ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, ‘Bye, Bye, Birdie’, for Chrissake! The guy’s a legend! A legend, I tell ya!” I reminded myself of this scene from “Fanboys”:
So who’s right here? Ms. Travers? Me? The guys from “Fanboys”? Are Dick Van Dyke and Harrison Ford not in the same league as Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness because they lack Oscars and BAFTA credentials? Did Dick Van Dyke and Harrison Ford, Walt Disney and George Lucas, do the world a disservice by giving us silly, trivial nonsense? Then again, even Alec Guinness played a crazy old wizard in a space fantasy opera. But, would he have been on the same side as Ms. Travers?
That clips kills me. Why, Sir Alec, why!? I guess I have seven years to get out of my fantasy world full of second-hand childhood banalities. But, I love that fantasy world! And it’s done me some good, I say!
You see, there’s a theme going on in “Saving Mr. Banks” about the role of the storyteller; specifically, the role and the responsibility the storyteller has to the next generation. Is the role of the storyteller simply to reiterate tribulations of the past in order to prepare them for the realities of a cold, dark word? Or is it to empower them with hope for a warm, bright future? Surely, as we know what Alec Guinness never understood, there is room for both. Laurence Olivier was an incredible actor, but did he have this kind of charm?
Sometimes, “Pride and Prejudice” isn’t quite the pick me up you expect it to be, so you try “Bye, Bye, Birdie” instead. Life is tough, and I get it: sometimes we do want depressing art to drown ourselves in when we’re sad. And we need art to tell us about the harsh truths of the world. But we can’t just commend those who film tragedy as artists. We need to commend those like Walt Disney who were bold enough to take a modern, powerful parables and meld them with hope and wonder.
There are artists that imitate life, and then there are artists that just straight up create life. I’m talkin’ about guys that brought storytelling to new heights. Guys that took the mantra of “the medium is the message” to infinity and beyond. They didn’t just tell stories, they created worlds. And in my father, son and holy ghost of world creators, it’s Walt Disney, George Lucas and Jim Henson respectively. Let’s face it, though, there were a lot of Ms. Traverses in my film classes. To admit that “Star Wars” was your favorite film on the first day of class was always social suicide. It was like saying, “hey! Don’t bother trying to respect anything I say from here on out!” Regardless, I would tell my film class peers that “Star Wars” and George Lucas and Jim Henson and Walt Disney brought upon the greatest wonders of the world to my puny, child mind, and they stuck with me forever (and now they are all part of the same family, thanks to Walt).
Their films are important to me, and they’re important to millions of kids every day—kids that will become adults; adults that, hopefully, won’t lose that wonder—that incredible wonder that Jim Henson had the talent to instill in us through his hand up the ass of a felt frog with a banjo. Jim Henson probably had no idea that he would be creating anything more than puppets who would fire off clever one-liners in commercials. What he ended up creating was an empire of puppets, movies and TV shows that would guide generations in knowledge, creativity and hope. How did he do it? What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing at The Muppets, “The Storyteller” and “Sesame Street” after all these years? That epic ability to tell wonderous stories…
I give George Lucas an incredible amount of credit for his decisions with the end of “Star Wars”. They are decisions that, perhaps, Ms. Travers and Alec Guinness and my film student peers would have disagreed with. But, imagine being a moviegoer in 1977, with no knowledge of the childhood-marketed intentions of “Star Wars”. It was a time of Civil War in Hollywood, so to speak; rebel filmmakers—like Coppola and Scorsese and Brian de Palma—had their first blows against the Hollywood Empire of the past. Striking from film schools, these new filmmakers created a New Hollywood, filled with destruction, despair, terror, violence and unhappy endings. Enter, George Lucas. Using a similar formula, he takes an old Hollywood genre, and through most of his new film, “Star Wars”, he updates the genre with modern realities.
Where am I going with this? Most of “Star Wars” is pretty bleak. You don’t see it watching it now because you know how it ends; because its stories are now written in pop culture consciousness. But, think about it! Luke’s Aunt and Uncle are burned to death, Leia’s whole entire world is destroyed in mass genocide and our only hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is killed 2/3rds into the film. On top of that, one of our heroes, Han Solo, leaves the good fight for greed. If you’re an adult sitting in a theater in 1977, without knowledge of its child-friendly intentions, you’re absolutely expecting Luke Skywalker to fail in destroying the Death Star, leaving his friends and rebellion on Yavin IV to perish with eternal guilt resting over his head.
George Lucas, however, goes the opposite route for his film’s finale. In a last ditch effort, Luke Skywalker, when nothing else has worked, decides to throw rationale, science and technology out the window for his gut-feeling, The Force and hope. To me, it’s one of the most powerful scenes in—that’s right, “Fanboys”—all of cinema. Every time Luke switches off his targeting computer, I get chills. Luke succeeds in saving the day by trusting in himself and the goodwill of his friend, Han. With a little luck and faith, he does the impossible.
(As an aside: the biggest payback I can give to Alec Guinness for his comments above is that I’ve seen the following scene enough times to know that the audio is modulated a half-step up from its original recording).
What would Ms. Travers have to say about Mark Hamill in this scene? Probably nothing good, but the performance George Lucas got out of Mark Hamill will forever be ingrained in my mind as the perfect performance for one of the greatest characters of all time; maybe not in the same vein as Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness, but he’ll always be up there with Dick Van Dyke and Kermit the Frog—and damn it, that may even be a higher honor in some of our minds.
We love our Bergman and our Fellini, our Coppola and our Scorsese, but we have to respect our Walt, Jim and George, for they knew that sometimes, we just need a spoonful of storytelling sugar to help the medicine of life go down a little easier.
I leave you with this:
Thanks, Walt! For convincing Ms. Travers.