Disney’s newest movie, Saving Mr. Banks, provides an excellent opportunity for discussing relational wisdom and sharing the gospel of Christ.
The movie is built around the contentious relationship between Walt Disney and Pamela L. Travers, the author of the beloved book series, Mary Poppins. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson play the leading roles with their typical brilliance.
The movie has two distinct but tightly interwoven layers.
In the main storyline, Travers locks horns with Disney and his creative team as they collaborate on writing the screenplay for the movie version of Travers’ books. As is documented by audio tapes of their actual conversations (and illustrated in this movie trailer), Travers bristled over the Disney team’s whimsical depiction of Mary Poppins and their negative portrayal of Mr. Banks, the father of the two children placed in Mary Poppins’ care.
The deeper storyline is revealed through flashbacks to Travers’ childhood, which was scarred by an alcoholic father, a suicidal mother, and a stern Great Aunt (the prototype for Mary Poppins). According to Valarie Lawson, Travers’ biographer (Mary Poppins, She Wrote), all three of these individuals were far less nurturing in real life than presented in Saving Mr. Banks.
Travers’ actual relationship with her father was particularly agonizing. As a result, she was haunted throughout her life by painful memories of his drinking, temper outbursts, demotion from bank manager to clerk, and early death, which left the family destitute.
As a young girl, Travers sought to suppress her pain by re-imaging her father and inventing a fantasy life in which he was the “handsome supervisor of a sugarcane plantation.” She invented so many variations on this theme that her personal friends had no idea what her real family life had been like.
This clash between reality and fantasy set the stage for Travers’ primary battle with the Disney team. In their initial screen play, the team depicted Mr. Banks in a very negative light, which opened painful wounds for Travers. As a result, she stormed out of more than one meeting reeling in anger because the studio’s depiction of Mr. Banks forced her to realize that the fantasy image she’d constructed of her father was an illusion.
Seeing how troubled Travers was over the negative depiction of Mr. Banks (but not yet understanding his connection to her father), the Disney team softened his character and revised the ending of the movie. They wrote a new song that deeply moved Travers and enabled her to imagine both Mr. Banks and her father as having been saved from their lonely, self-destructive lives (thus the title, Saving Mr. Banks).
The movie includes another scene that may or may not be true. Having finally guessed that Travers’ turmoil is related to painful memories of her own father, Disney engages her in a tender conversation. He demonstrates empathy by sharing a story from his own childhood and then softly adds, “It’s not the children Mary Poppins comes to save … it’s the father … it’s your father.” For just a moment, these two intense individuals connect in a deeply emotional way.
I could find nothing in Travers’ biography or any other source that confirmed this exchange, so it may simply be the product of creative screenwriting. Whether it is real or fictional, however, it provides a vivid illustration of relational wisdom.
Specifically, this scene portrays a high level of other-awareness, of looking into the deep waters of another person’s life and connecting with them emotionally by understanding their fears and dreams (Prov. 20:5).
The scene also depicts the liberating impact of self-awareness. When Travers finally understands and faces the way that memories of her childhood control her life, she has the opportunity to choose a new course of thinking and action, freeing her from the past.
You can use this scene, and many other interactions in the movie, to initiate a discussion of relational wisdom and, more importantly, to share the gospel of Christ.
To set the stage for such a conversation, invite some friends to watch the movie with you, either in a theater or when it is released as a DVD. Afterward, lead a discussion by asking a few of these types of questions:
- How did Travers’ father and mother impact her adult life and relationships? How did she attempt to deal with the painful memories of her father? How well did her strategy work?
- Why was Travers so curt with the Disney team, and why did she insist on using formal titles (“Mr. Disney”) rather than first names (“Walt”)?
- What was the turning point in Travers’ relationship with her chauffeur (my favorite character in the movie)? What did he say and do that finally got through Travers’ hard exterior and formed an empathetic bond between them? How was that bond revealed later in the movie?
- Why was Travers so angered by the Disney team’s negative portrayal of Mr. Banks?
- Why was she pleased with the Disney team’s more positive portrayal of Mr. Banks and their inclusion of the song, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”?
- At what point did you understand why they called this movie “Saving Mr. Banks”? What did he need to be saved from? Who saved him? How was he saved? (You may need to watch the Mary Poppins movie to answer all of these questions!)
- What were some examples of “other-awareness” (the ability to understand and empathize with the experiences, emotions, and needs of others) in the movie? How did this skill change relationships?
- What were some examples of “self-awareness” (the ability to accurately discern your own emotions, interests, values, strengths, and weaknesses.)?
- The movie makes no mention of God. How could the gospel have helped Travers deal with the pains of her past? To put it another way, how does the gospel address our past, truly “re-image” us, and change our perspective of those around us?
- How does the movie illustrate the human longing for someone who will redeem our failures and give us a new beginning on life? How does Jesus fulfill that longing?
Now, to get more personal …
- Do you know someone like Pamela Travers? Someone who is aloof, distant, and easily offended or angered? What lessons did you learn from this movie that might help you to empathize with and minister to that person?
- Is there someone who has deeply disappointed or hurt you? How have you attempted to deal with that pain? How well has your approach worked? How can the gospel of Christ provide a more effective way to deal with the past, as well as your present and future with that person?
- Are you a parent? Ask your children if there are things you’ve done that deeply disappointed them or clouded your relationships. Make it clear that it is safe for them to be honest with you; don’t become defensive if they say things that pain you. If you have failed them, humbly confess it without making excuses and ask for their forgiveness.
- Are you married? Ask your spouse the same question and give him or her the opportunity to share honestly. Then turn together toward God, draw on the atoning sacrifice and forgiveness of Christ to wash away the guilt of your sins, and look together toward a future that is cleansed and renewed by his grace.
These kinds of discussions can be risky and difficult, but they are often the key to clearing away the rubble of the past and building authentic and rewarding relationships. Step out in faith, for you have been saved not by an imaginary nanny but the one true God, who sent his Son to save the world.
– Ken Sande
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© 2013 Ken Sande
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