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Thursday, November 27, 2014

'Saving Mr. Banks' and ourselves

I have many fond childhood memories. Among them, I remember sitting with my family on a sandy beach beside a lake that was as still as glass. It was night, and the sky was pitch black. I was 11 or 12 years old.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a flotilla of barges, illuminated by pyrotechnics that formed glittering animals, appeared, while Handel’s “Water Music” played.

I felt like I was in a dream, but I wasn’t. Life was suddenly strange and delightful. It seemed that this wondrous procession moving slowly across the horizon was created just for me. Forget that I was surrounded by hundreds of people. This show was mine and mine alone.

That, of course, is the magic of Walt Disney World. You are in this fantastical place, removed from everyday life, and particularly as a child, you believe (key word: believe) it has all been created just for you. It is a storybook come to life.

The memory of that show popped into my head when my wife and I recently watched “Saving Mr. Banks” with our kids. It’s the 2013 Disney Studios/BBC Films production about Walt Disney’s 20-year quest to create “Mary Poppins,” the partly animated film that recreated — if not verbatim, at least in spirit — P.L. Travers’s acclaimed children’s book of the same name, which was published in 1934 and followed by a series of books featuring the Mary Poppins character.

“Saving Mr. Banks” focuses on the final weeks of negotiations between Disney and Travers in 1961, as they reached a deal to make the multi-Academy Award-winning children’s film.

Funny, before “Saving Mr. Banks,” I had never thought of Walt Disney as a person. The generation or two of children before me grew up with Disney hosting TV specials. He was a national celebrity as big as, well, Mickey Mouse. But he died of lung cancer in December 1966, seven months before I was born. So I never had the chance to watch the avuncular Disney on TV.

I appreciated the details embedded in “Saving Mr. Banks” –– the towering plate of Ding Dongs and the oversized Jell-O mold offered as snacks by Disney’s receptionist to Travers, the shelf full of theme-park tchotchkes adorning Disney’s sprawling office. To any child born and bred during the 1960s and ’70s, Ding Dongs and Jell-O and Disney statuettes are oh-so-familiar symbols of the era.

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