Creating a happy team is the objective of endless management courses and ‘how to’ guides. Everyone should seek to avoid conflict and soothe ruffled feathers. The funny thing is that in the creative sphere, that isn’t necessarily true.
Sometimes, you can work on a project where everyone is happy, but the final result is anodyne, dull. Other projects can be beset with arguments and rows, long emails, tears and banging down of telephones, but the final result is something amazing.
Creativity doesn’t necessarily come from a happy team. Occasionally, strong differences of opinion and turf battles create an extraordinary final product because everyone has to be on top of their game to have a hope of their material making the final cut.
Mary Poppins was one such example. Saving Mr. Banks tells the tale of the war of wills that led to one of Walt Disney’s crowning glories (nominated for 13 Oscars, winning 5).
Walt Disney first discovered Mary Poppins through his daughters, and then spent twenty years trying to convince P.L Travers, her creator, to give him the film rights. She, appalled by his infantile cartoons, was determined not to surrender the rights until finally financial necessity pushed her into the hands of the House of Mouse.
This is the subject of Saving Mr. Banks, one of the best examples of a battle over creator rights that I have ever seen.
To its credit for a film produced by Disney, Saving Mr. Banks is not a hagiography. Disney (Tom Hanks) is shown as a a master manipulator, a shrewd salesman who really knows how to make friends and influence people. He has promised his daughters that he would make a film about the magic nanny, and Walt (always Walt, never Mr Disney) doesn’t go back on his word.
In the other corner is the sharp, prim and apparently utterly humourless P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). She has to do everything she can to retain as much creative control over her characters as possible. Otherwise, she fears that they will be devoured and cartoonified like other British favourites such as Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book.
If she feels over-defensive, she has good reason. Travers is a lone woman against a gigantic machine, one that today has taken over both Marvel Comics and Star Wars (when did films start becoming described as something so bleak as a franchise?).
There’s more. For Travers, Mary Poppins was not just a product of her imagination. The story harks back to a traumatic experience in her Australian childhood, told here in a series of flashback sequences with Colin Farrell as her father. Travers cannot let go of these characters because they are a huge part of who she is. Through the story of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers was saving Mr Banks in fiction as she never could in life, again and again and again.
Though it has long since passed from the cinema screens, Saving Mr. Banks has the potential to be one of those movies that get picked up in DVD or pay-per-view format as a fly-in-the-wall as to what happens when individual creativity meets corporate ambition. I loved it, despite the fact that I have never actually seen Mary Poppins.
For a very different take on the movie, check out Lucinda Sans’s review which also explains why the film’s Australian scenes don’t look right to her.