Like Mary Poppins’ creator, writer Kip Robisch lost his ‘fun dad’ early.
When we’re watching a Disney film that’s other than one of the “nature pictures”—the closest things to documentaries the studio has made in its 90-year history—the one rule we know to exercise is a healthy suspension of disbelief. Walt Disney’s unwavering dedication was to belief—to the faith that your imagination was powerful enough to provide you with a joy that could compete with any real joy, or pain, in the physical world. You just have to accept that in Epcot Center Morocco smells like asphalt and cotton candy and has a tropical climate. You have to let go in a theater when Tinker Bell draws an arc of pixie dust; that’s your cue that fairy tales can come true. It can happen to you. You can be saved.
When I was seven, my father was on his way to work on the Jersey Turnpike when a man in his 60s, driving with his wife, caught a flash of sunlight that temporarily blinded him as he was approaching the intersection. On a red light. He went through the light fast enough that my father died instantly when his Corvair was T-boned. The other man’s wife died in the crash as well. He lived.
Most of what I know about my father came to me through stories my mother would tell me, doling them out reluctantly until I was a certain age, or asked a certain question, or said something that surprised her about how old I’d become. I remembered that he’d bought me a Johnny Astro for Christmas—a white balloon attached to a plastic gondola molded to include Johnny himself, piloting the gondola while you used a basic steering control to run a fan that blew the balloon around the room until it was out of range. My father and his friends played with the toy more than I did, and I remember having to wait my turn for my own Christmas present. I recalled that he would come home from work, sometimes well after dark, sometimes with something small for me, and sometimes with a bigger gift. A set of colored pencils and individual line drawings of Franco Harris, O.J. Simpson, Gale Sayers, in a wooden box. A plastic space-age looking egg from a vending machine with a prize inside. A pair of movie tickets in a small envelope with the logo of Luisi’s Bar on it—a tipping martini glass with an olive on a toothpick.
My mother has often said how happy it makes her that I remember my father as a fun dad. Taking me to Cherry Hill to play miniature golf, suddenly breaking into silly dances (my brother picked up this trait and amuses his girls with it sometimes), turning toward me with a perfectly seriously look on his face as I entered the kitchen… wearing a pot on his head. She’s glad I remember him this way for the kind of reasons only a woman married to a man like my father could have. Little by little I learned that my fun dad was not just good at being a big kid with me and that he loved my brother Vince and me as much as he loved anything in his life. I learned that he was fun for everyone. He drank too much. He probably fooled around on my mother. He gambled to the point at which we were evicted more than once, and I remember at least one occasion on which my mother went out collecting soda bottles to recycle for a little extra grocery money.
My brother was two when Stewart Edward Robisch died, and has no recollection of him. My mother tells me that when I was told the news on the day of his death, I had two reactions: “Not my daddy,” and then, when she explained and I accepted, “Well, does that mean I have to get a job? What are we going to do to eat?”
I’ve known others who had fathers that were exuberant, fun, playful, big kids, a dad stereotype—who were also at the bedrock of their characters irresponsible. They suffered from the symptoms of the disease that plagued men of their era—that sense of power they were supposed to derive from doing hard work and having a wife at home with the kids, mixed in a volatile chemistry with the power they were supposed to derive from being boys who would never grow up.
You grow up without a father and you live with your head on a swivel for “role models” or stand-ins. Uncles. My youth minister and my uncle Eddie both taught me to drive. Mr. Rogers taught me to be nice. My uncle Jeff taught me to draw, and then when I got hooked on drawing, Walt Disney’s movies and the animation books on Disney techniques taught me to draw well. I made flip books in school, first of Disney characters, then later of naked girls. I loved the fantastic, the fairy tale story structure and archetypes, and what Disney could do with squash and stretch animation on a gloriously painted static background. I thought I might become an animator, but that became my astronaut dream, and now I can sit with my nieces and knock out sketches of Disney or Marvel characters for kicks. It’s an uncle talent every man should try to develop, I think.
By the end of the latest Disney movie, Saving Mr. Banks, a man can weep as well as a woman at what it takes to crack the cold heart, to quiver the stiff upper lip, of a kindred spirit whose past with her Fun Dad has scarred her too deeply for her to relax and remember fondly. Art comes out of her experience, beautiful art that is very British and rainy and sad, though in perfect possession of its own hope. And a man, just as fast as a woman, can feel in his bones the hope of the other kindred spirit, one for whom the immovable object of his father has propelled him too fast away from the doldrums for him to calcify and frown his way through his life and work. Art comes out—full of sunlight and cuteness and the mesmerism of ancient tales made new in a Los Angeles obsessed, enchanted, with the new—a Los Angeles in perfect possession of its fantasies, especially about itself.
There’s a moment in the film when Tom Hanks, warmly and with subtle gruffness playing Walt Disney, tells a songwriter for the film version of Mary Poppins that he guarded “the mouse” religiously enough to understand P. L. Travers’s attachment to her British nanny character. His Missouruh (not, as he pronounces it, “Missouree”) accent is a little off, but L. A. will do that to an accent. The moment of Disney’s empathy with “Mrs. Travers” is the heart of the film in dialogue, while the creative process of composing the music depicted in the movie is the height of its spirit.
I’d forgotten how good the music from the old Disney films is. Before the destruction of melodic depth in musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber—in the Sondheim, Gershwin, Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein universe—musical films still retained that sweatshop songwriter ethic that produced brilliant turns, devices, tropes, and lyric genius. Saving Mr. Banks opens with a legato, melancholy piano version of “Chim Chimney,” as if it were under construction in the studio as we float in—the quintessentially Disney Studios apparatus used on so many of its films to make the viewer feel a part of the fantasy’s creation. Saving Mr. Banks also offers snippets of the beautiful ballad “Feed the Birds,” a song that had in my memory been all but lost under the weight of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (which the film smartly holds at arm’s length) and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”—both iconic of my childhood, songs that we sang in the school house on Oak and Main where I attended the first grade, the year before my father died. When Emma Thompson joins the writers, led by a cartoonishly likeable Bradley Whitford, in singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” I felt that school house again, and had that pang of emotion you just don’t want to feel during a Disney movie but, if you give yourself the gift of being a bit of a sap, have to feel.
The story of P. L. Travers, a name we find to be the nom de plume of Helen Goff, is the substance of the movie’s father figure theme. Because it’s a Disney film and therefore subject to every presupposition that it must be fiction, Saving Mr. Banks baits us at each brightly-colored, well-lit turn to think that it is playing fast and loose with actual historical events. The plot is, however, remarkably accurate (watch through the credits for evidence), and the liberties it takes, such as the fact that Travers had already signed the release of the film to Disney before arriving for the consultation, are all forgivable.
The back story is of Goff as a girl in Australia with a father who awakens in her flights of fancy, wonder at the world, and what for him turns out to a fatal escapism through alcohol and irresponsibility—in addition to the more sympathetic physical pain of what the movie implies is tuberculosis. Colin Farrell packs a great range of emotion into short spaces, and creates the perfect foil in Helen Goff’s life—the memory of a real father who wanted to be a fairy tale father—for Walt Disney, the fairy tale father of the Magic Kingdom and every child in it who wanted to adopt Mary Poppins. By the time we get to the severe Mary Poppins figure, Helen’s aunt (handled with terrific concision by Rachel Griffiths) who comes to save the family, we’re primed for the ending of the story, the story of Saving Mr. Banks.
For me—and this might resonate with a number of men who grew up without fathers, who delivered newspapers in the snow, and who have suffered their own Peter Panocchio syndromes—Saving Mr. Banks succeeds as a film of universal human appeal because it takes the saccharine, challengingly bright, musical Disney feel and uses it, as Walt Disney used it, to remind us of the limits of fantasy even while declaring the necessity of it. Fantasy without responsibility is, in both this world and the world of fairy tales, the cause of suffering, often of death, and its fallout blasts all the way forward in time to readers generations removed from the King Midases or moustachioed proprietary and negligent fathers who lock their daughters into towers.
The film has one more finely crafted layer, dependent upon the quirky, dwarfish charisma of Paul Giamatti colliding with the perfection of Emma Thompson’s Disney Ice Queen P. L. Travers. Giamatti plays the studio’s chauffer, Ralph, whose job it is to transport Travers from hotel to rehearsal room every day of her stint as a reluctant consultant to the film. She prepares during each car trip her passive resistance to the movie being made, and at first only lets herself be interrupted by her flashbacks to Australia. Thompson gets across with a deeply uncomfortable grace and candor the British 1960s sensibilities about servants knowing their place—sensibilities utterly out of place in Disney’s L. A. , a city made of first names and Jello molds shaped like cartoon mice.
Giamatti’s slow release of information about his relationship with a daughter who is bound to a wheelchair is mapped with both the warming of P. L. Travers to his indefatigable charm and the building heat toward the dazzling Mary Poppins premier. Giamatti’s father figure—the hopeful, optimistic, celebratory low wage earner who is also obviously emotionally fatigued by his daughter’s condition—is the better counterpart than Disney himself to Travers Robert Goff, Helen’s own father who in memory haunts her all the way through both films (Walt’s Mary Poppins and John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks). Ralph’s erosion of Travers’s barky exterior lasts all the way to the powerful scene of Travers weeping through the premier in a complicated catharsis of disgust at Disney’s creation; relinquishment to the sheer force of the ingenious and emotional musical score; and her own parting, again, with the father—the Mr. Banks of Mary Poppins—who couldn’t bear the reality of his workaday life and loved his children to death.
I have thought sometimes of the man driving the car that killed both my father and the man’s wife—tried to imagine the unthinkable exhaustion he must have felt for the rest of his existence. I have thought sometimes, too, about how I never got to be a dad. I would have liked it, and been good at it, I think. I’ve been a teacher all my life, which has provided wonderful occasions for being with kids, and for being ridiculous and staying a kid myself—a characteristic for which men are often simultaneously celebrated and chastised. I raised a nephew, and had uncles raise me when my saint of a mother wasn’t reinventing our lives for the better. And all the while, as a man without my own children, I have responded most from my soul to the relationships that men have with their sons and daughters as they try—sometimes as hard as they can in the face of the wildest chaos of odds—to be both fun and responsible for as long as their children remain children. Achieving such a balance seems to me a quality born of the fantastic.