Storytelling is one of the most compelling ways to communicate, whether to instruct our children in societal lessons or to make a point for commercial purposes. Storytelling at its best will engage the audience in a persuasive and indelible manner, as the narrative, characters, and setting settle into a place of accessible memory.
Occasionally, a film engages not only by virtue of its combination of distinctive characters, its action or evolution, and its cinematic appeal to the senses, but by triggering the reappearance of a childlike state in our otherwise adult universe. When we’re children, “suspension of disbelief” is the norm and skepticism, as yet an undiscovered obstacle to dreaming.
Recently, I watched Saving Mr. Banks, a Hollywood account of bringing Mary Poppins to the big screen in a battle of wills between its author, P. L. Travers, and Walt Disney. Not only am I a huge fan of Emma Thompson – always relieved to see an authentic woman on film – but I was drawn to her performance as the flinty, prickly personality to whom these characters were quite literally family.
While the main storyline involves the push-pull between the larger-than-life Mr. Disney and the immovable author, the film is interspersed with flashbacks to Travers’ youth in Australia and musical numbers that eventually appeared in the film with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in the starring roles.
Like many children of the 1960s, Mary Poppins came along at some point in my childhood – precisely when, I couldn’t say. Viewing this movie, I found myself jolted straight back to the age of seven or eight, when I still believed in magic, and for that matter, in all the delights I imagined lay ahead.
As for the melodies that soared on screen and evoked a surprisingly gushing response in yours truly, when the characters in Saving Mr. Banks began to belt out a chorus of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” I experienced a rush of pure happiness. Color me staggered! I was stunned by the emotion (and enjoyed it), pleased at the sensation of being carried away (and carried back, albeit briefly), and thrilled that the pleasant mood persisted into the following day.
Storytelling at its best moves us – on the page, on the stage, or in film. Saving Mr. Banks, and in particular Ms. Thompson’s portrayal, touched on both sentimental and optimistic registers. Perhaps I needed a good cry, a good sing, and a charming reminder that telling our tales is important.
While I don’t recall where this line of dialog played out in the script, I jotted it down. Tom Hanks as Walt Disney says: We restore order with imagination.
Sometime later, I found this passage from an explanation of storytelling in film and its power, by author and critic Brian Dunnigan:
The appeal of storytelling as a form of communication and entertainment comes precisely from this ability to excite then resolve tension and restore equilibrium in a neat and satisfying way… We are storytelling creatures who seek to report experience, clarify tangled emotion, define and amuse ourselves through narrative: jokes, anecdotes, myth, romance, parable, folktale, history, fiction. Stories, it is argued, inspire, heal, inform, and empower… to imagine other possibilities.
Whatever takes place in our daily grind, our working lives, our all too often futile attempts to set right what we perceive as wrong and possibly beyond our ability to influence, imagination offers solace as well as hope. If we can imagine it, perhaps we can make it so. This is the premise of so many of our most memorable tales and certainly those that preserve, dare I say “save” snippets of our childhood: They give life to language, imagery, music, performance – all in the service of defying constraints for the better – beating back disorientation in a chaotic and confusing world, while restoring a more agreeable, less encumbered, and necessary order.
Image of Emma Thompson, BigStockPhoto, editorial use only; Emma Thompson at the Emma Thompson Hand and Footprint Ceremony at TCL Chinese Theater on November 7, 2013 in Los Angeles, CA
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