The history of making MaryPoppins into a film was a troubled one. Author P.L. Travers strongly disliked the film when it came out, and she forbade Walt Disney from ever making another Poppins film.
That hasn’t stopped Disney from making Saving Mr. Banks, a film that reimagines the making of Mary Poppins with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. The rest of the cast looks equally fabulous, with Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, my wife Ruth Wilson, and many more rounding off the cast. Bonus points to Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak in some funny scenes as the Sherman brothers.
While it may not be historically accurate, I wouldn’t mind the extra spoonful of sugar added to this movie.
It’s often easy to ignores the bureaucratic banalities and ethical problems that lie behind artistic genius. We alienate celebrity figures and their works fromany semblance of reality in much the same way that Disney World is alienated from the rest of Florida. In A Public Reading, the central conflict is precisely Disney’s struggle to remove himself from reality– to become an eternal figurehead of escape and happiness.
That’s not to say Disney is a happy man himself. At least, not when he’s out of his own head. When he humbles himself enough to interact with his brother Roy, his daughter, and his son-in-law, he’s a resentful, proud, and power-hungry man. But when he’s inside his thoughts in true megalomaniac fashion, he’s his own best company. Still, the play excellently depicts Walt’s (a hauntingly good Larry Pine) relationship with his family, using largely brief fragmented dialogue to display their struggle in genuine communication.
What A Public Reading does best however, is depict a genius who, as time and old age sets in, is seeing his work fall prey to various forces. Walt can’t seem to have anything original or authentic anymore. If you’re a Walter Benjamin nut like me, you might follow my train of thought a bit better– Benjamin was a 1930s critic who claimed that modernity robs art of a certain ‘aura’ that existed when a piece of art could not be reproduced. So let’s say that a piece of art like the Mona Lisa, in the 19th century, had an almost sacred quality. Art devotees could only travel to the Louvre to see it. There were not coffee cups with the Mona Lisa on it. No souvenirs or postcards in the Louvre gift shop with the Mona Lisa on it. No quick Google searches to glance at it.
Now, fast forward to 20th Century France. The Mona Lisa is everywhere and anywhere. And who really actually goes to the Louvre anymore to see it? My own interaction with the real Mona Lisa took about 3 seconds, and it was mostly just to say I had done it.
As Walt Disney gets older, his works are growing increasingly alienated from the wonder and awe he inspired in those of his generation. In many ways, Disney is more concerned in the reproduction of an idea than in its original form. For example, when we first meet Roy (Frank Wood) and Walt they are busy making a nature documentary about lemmings who supposedly suicidally jump off a cliff every year as part of their life cycle. When they discover that lemmings don’t actually do that, however, they launch the lemmings right off the darn cliff themselves. Later on, while building FrontierLand, Roy buys land from a local farmer on the condition that a generations-old tree remains on the property. Walt, however, first relocates the tree, then fills the tree with cement. Then replaces the leaves with fake ones. Good enough, right? We see this alienation from original ideas in Walt’s private life as well. He is overwhelmingly distressed by the fact that his daughter refuses to name his unborn grandson after him. He is likewise concerned about the reproduction of his legacy in his final cryogenic freezing of his head. (JUST the head! It can get a new body later) A head is the center of ideas, of genius, of impulse. But is it any longer so once placed on a new and ‘improved’ body?
By the end of the play, we’ve realized that not only has Walt alienated himself from any authentic relationship with his family, he has also alienated himself from the authenticity of his work. And what better way to show this complete, authoritarian disconnect from the nature of love, art, and happiness than to set the play in a corporate boardroom? Good times.