Monday, December 30, 2013

Walt Disney--Employer of the Year?

Why the fascination with Walt Disney? Earlier this year we had an off-off Broadway play about his last days, painting him as a sinister employer even in his final deterioration (that's to put it mildly--I sat in the front row and was sprayed by the blood the actor continually spat). Now in a lighter vein comes "Saving Mr. Banks," in which Walt convinces P. L. Travers to license the movie rights to her Mary Poppins series. It was made with the cooperation of Walt Disney's empire and filmed at the Disney Studios--corporate storytelling run amok.

A shelf of
Mary Poppins
books, courtesy
of Wikipedia

Did you ever wonder about the story behind the Mary Poppins movie? Neither did I. In fact, I've never read a Mary Poppins book nor seen the film. My childhood tastes ran to Nancy Drew, a young American gal of action, a great role model. But I love workplace dramas, and it's a holiday week, so off I went. Thank goodness Meryl Streep turned down the lead role, because Emma Thompson fits it like a silk stocking. 

The turning point scene rings false. After near-acceptance, Travers rejects the deal and flies in a huff back to London. Walt follows in haste, knocks on her door, and pleads his case in a my-childhood-was-worse-than-yours monolog. Research reveals this encounter to be pure fabrication. Fine; this film is not a documentary. But most likely Travers finally took the deal because she needed the money. 

Another puzzling point is the waste of a good actor, Paul Giametti, as Travers's chauffeur. At one point he confides to Travers that he has a daughter with a disability. Later she tells him he's the only American she likes, signs a book for the child, and gives him a tell-your-little-girl-to-buck-up lecture. That I can believe, but Giametti's role is sadly underdeveloped.

The film certainly notes that Travers loathed the animation segment of the film. It's why she flew home and almost walked away from the deal. But it doesn't mention that she refused to sell Disney the rights to any sequels. That omission is too bad. All it would have taken was a few words on the screen before the credits. It's not good corporate history if it doesn't deal with lessons learned. 

P.S. If you want a realistic picture of the Sherman brothers, the guys who wrote the music for the Mary Poppins film and many other Disney classics, check out the documentary on Netflix. Now there's an unvarnished glimpse at creativity. These men didn't like each other and grew farther apart as they aged, but they kept on composing together because they were productive work partners. Now there's a lesson learned.