“Mary Poppins” & “Saving Mr. Banks”: A Tale of One Father

 Editor’s note: Periodically, Dad Matter’s contributors Paul Asay and Sam Hoover will look at fatherhood and how it’s portrayed in movies (see Finding Nemo Part 1 and Part 2 and Man of Steel). This time, they jump into the watercolor-painting-fantasy of Mary Poppins and real-life inspired Saving Mr. Banks.

Sam: 2014 marks the golden anniversary of what I deem to be the most confusing Disney movie ever made – “Mary Poppins” (technically, “Poppins” was released in Aug of 1964). Confirming my beliefs is the fact that this year the Library of Congress finally got around to select it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Other movies that made the LoC’s cut this year? “Pulp Fiction” (released in 1994) and 2002’s “Decasia” – the youngest film to be preserved ever.

Now with the original in the spotlight again, the Walt Disney Corporation has to release “Saving Mr. Banks” in order to help the general audience understand what exactly Disney was thinking with that talkative-bird-umbrella, England’s obsession with flying kites and Dick Van Dyke’s horrendous cockney accent (considered to be one of the worst accents in all of movie history).

I mean … really. Is there a more lovable and yet quizzical movie than “Mary Poppins”?

Paul: Lovable and awesome, you mean! Who cares about Van Dyke’s accent? You do a horrible English accent, and I’d still enjoy seeing you do a soft-shoe number with a bunch of penguins.

How great is Mary Poppins? My 19-year-old daughter, who likes old movies and musicals, loves Mary Poppins. My 23-year-old son, who likes obscure, artsy movies about eccentric and troubled actuaries, says it’s one of his favorite movies. I love Mary Poppins. (And, as a Plugged In critic, I don’t like much.) And I almost always cry at the end. Stupid tear ducts.

Sam: Mary Poppins is one of the few movies I could turn on and instantly know where in the movie I’ve stumbled into. Like returning home for the holidays, I could effortlessly jump right into the dialogue at any given moment.

And there’s something about seeing movies with a fresh perspective as a new parent (or new spouse for that matter). Finding Nemo, Up, Forrest Gump … I’ve stifled tears at them all.

Paul: And the thing that makes me cry, really, is the story arc of Mr. Banks. Here’s a guy who’s got a lot on his plate, a man who loves his kids and just can’t seem to show it.

Sam: You mean kids need more from a dad than having him “pat them on the head and send them off to bed”?

Paul: Man, how many of us dads can relate to that? Like Mr. Banks, we want to love our children by giving them the wherewithal to handle a strange, sometimes cruel world. So sometimes (metaphorically) we trot them off to the local bank to teach them about solid and wise investment strategies.

Sam: Banks clearly gets energized with going to work and bringing home the tuppance. But his work/life balance clearly needs a fixing. The movie’s philosopher Bert chastises him rightly:

You’re a man of high position, esteemed by your peers.

And when your little tykes are crying, you haven’t time to dry their tears

And see their thankful little faces smiling up at you, ‘Cause their dad, he always knows just what to do

You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone, Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve

And all too soon they’ve up and grown, and then they’ve flown, And it’s too late for you to give…

Paul: But as dads, we want our kids to embrace life, too—to see its wonder and whimsy and God-given beauty. That’s a hard balance for us to find, and I don’t know if any of us do it perfectly—certainly not Mr. Banks. At first, it seems as though he is whimsy-deficient.

Sam: Almost every adult I know suffers from whimsy-deficiency. The side-effects of whimsy-deficiency are captured by Philoso-Bert:

Who looks after your father? Tell me that. When something terrible happens, what does he do? Fends for himself, he does. Who does he tell about it? No one! Don’t blab his troubles at home. He just pushes on at his job, uncomplaining and alone and silent.

And it seems like this is the point that Saving Mr. Banks tries to drives home.

Pamela L. Travers father was an alcoholic, her mother was suicidal—not to mention she has a Poppins-inspiring Great Aunt. All of them are whimsy-deficient.

Throughout her life, Travers must have been haunted with painful memories of a family that left her future in shambles. No wonder she fantasized about life with a dad who was a “handsome supervisor of a sugarcane plantation”.

Paul: And Travers’ own fantasies filter right into one of the big themes of “Saving Mr. Banks:” The idea that people can be somehow redeemed through story. Travers needed her dad to be redeemed, because she saw the good in him. She knew there was so much more to him than his collection of failings.

Sam: And these memories set the tone in her demeanor with the Disney creative team. It’s no wonder Disney’s portrayal of Mr. Banks made her the maddest – but also the happiest when they found the recipe for his redemption.

Paul: Exactly! In the midst of a crisis, he rediscovers that life is about more than tuppence in a bank.

Sam: Or a wooden leg named “Smith”!

Paul: He takes his kids out to fly a kite and sings a pretty amazing song—some words of which I actually pulled for my Saving Mr. Banks review.

With tuppence for paper and strings

You can have your own set of wings

With your feet on the ground

You’re a bird in a flight

With your fist holding tight

To the string of your kite

Pay particular attention to the third and fourth line: “With your feet on the ground/you’re a bird in flight …” To me, this suggests that Mr. Banks found the balance. Sure, he couldn’t take his kids flying, like Mary Poppins could. No one really can. But you CAN still “fly” with your feet on the ground. You can still find the value in saving your tuppence AND helping to feed the birds. You can plan AND dream. One need not come at the expense of the other.

And the fact that Mr. Banks found his way back into the hearts of his children really touches me. Mr. Banks was the film’s villain and hero all at once—a nifty storytelling trick, that.

Sam: And that’s how I think a lot of dads feel. We feel like both the villain AND the hero.

This constant battle is fatherhood at its core – teaching our kids to be committed to discipline AND creativity, to work AND play, to punctuality AND frivolity.

Poppins and Banks teaches us that there is always a cost to our decisions but that the wisest investment a father can make is in his own family.