As my family counts down the days to a summer trip to London, I decided to prepare my sons the way I know best: by watching movies about the place. Of course, my choices might not be the most realistic visions of the city, but we’re not ready for A Clockwork Orange or The Elephant Man here (we may never be). I wanted to show them the London created by my childhood reading, the London of corner flower shops, chimney sweeps, and nursery tea, the London of Mary Poppins. I’m planning to read the books with the boys on our trip, but at home we started with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in Robert Stevenson’s 1964 musical film.
We first meet the family’s mother, Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns), an activist for women’s suffrage, but she’s no pillar of feminine strength. Instead, she’s a bit of a ninny; agitated by the news that the old nanny has lost the children somewhere out in the park, Mrs. Banks embarks on a song and dance with her servants about the importance of the women’s vote. The film grants all the maternal power to the new nanny, Mary Poppins, who brings the undersupervised children gently back into line with games and adventures. Ben and Eli bounced up and down on the couch with pleasure while we watched, though I had to pause the film to go over some unfamiliar language (my boys didn’t know the word “nanny” nor the term “suffragette”) and in that moment realized that what my kids view as music and magic and fun is more complicated to me. I was watching a film about family and class relationships. I flinched when Mrs. Banks takes off her suffragette’s sash and unhesitatingly serves as her husband’s secretary, and I wanted to shake Mr. Banks (played beautifully by David Tomlinson) who moans
“my world was firm,” about his pre-Mary days. He doesn’t recognize that it’s his children, not their nanny, who have properly upended his life. Mary shows him that the chaos of children is what he’s been missing, and ultimately pushes him toward really fathering his children.
Mr. Banks doesn’t know his children. He resents that they don’t appreciate the importance of his banking job, and is irritated when Mary suggests the children learn by attending work with him one day. Outside the bank, when the children encounter an old woman selling bird seed, Mr. Banks fails to see how spending their small coins on pigeon food might delight his children more than investing it. Their presence at the bank sets off a chain reaction that leads to Mr. Banks being fired — and coming home, where he finds Mary’s partner, Bert the chimney sweep (Dick Van Dyke), who’s accompanied the children on some magical adventures and participated in their play. In a lovely duet, Mr. Banks sings wistfully about his dashed hopes to “walk with giants, to carve [my] niche in the edifice of time” while Bert pointedly sings back:
“When your little tykes are crying
you haven’t time to dry their tears
and see them grateful little faces smiling up at you —
you’ve got to grind grind grind at that grindstone
though childhood slips like sand through a sieve,
and all too soon they’ve up and grown
and then they’ve flown
and it’s too late for you to give.”
Mr. Banks listens carefully, and then he makes a kite, and takes his astonished children out to the park to watch it sail up into the air.
But while I was absorbed in the story of a father learning to father, Ben and Eli were simply caught up in its magic: a carpet bag which offers up such crazy treasures as hat racks and gilt mirrors; a house that looks like a navy ship, and whose owner fires a cannon twice a day; and best of all, an umbrella that can help you fly. They giggled as the children stepped with Mary and Bert — their alternate parents — into a sidewalk chalk drawing and found themselves in an animated world of singing farm animals. “Awesome,” breathed Eli, eyes wide, as the children sailed into the air with Mary again. They’re continuing to enjoy the movie so much, in fact, that so far they’ve resisted my suggestions that we watch another British-kids-in-flight film, Peter Pan, preferring instead to watch favorite scenes of Mary Poppins over and over again. So instead, I gave myself another beautiful dose of London — without the kids — by watching Finding Neverland (Marc Forster, 2004).
Based on Allan Knee’s play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Finding Neverland tells the loosely fictionalized story of how J. M. Barrie, who was married but childless, came to befriend the widow Sylvia Llewelyn and, through his close friendship with her sons, write Peter Pan. With its fabulous cast (Johnny Depp as the writer, Kate Winslet as the widow, Julie Christie as her disapproving mother, and Dustin Hoffman as Barrie’s theatrical producer), and gorgeous settings (much of the action takes place in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens), the writing might not much matter, but the movie is beautifully written and poignant, too. I felt for Barrie’s wife, the long-suffering Mary (Radha Mitchell), whom Barrie accuses of frittering away time just rearranging the furniture; she might not understand much about the writing process, but she’s longing to be invited to learn: “I imagined that brilliant people disappeared to some secret place where good ideas floated around like leaves in autumn, and I hoped at least once you would take me there with you.”
He doesn’t take his wife to Neverland, but he does take the four fatherless Llewelyn boys, who inspire him to new flights of imagination with their games. As they play together in wooded parks and open meadows, the film takes them seamlessly from the real to their fantasies, and we can see how Barrie envisions his plays onstage. The writer is particularly drawn to the youngest Llewelyn boy, Peter, and gives him a journal in which to record his thoughts and feelings. Before long, Peter is composing plays for his ailing mother’s entertainment, and finds the writing both comforting and continuous after her death: “I just started writing and I haven’t been able to stop.”
Finding Neverland purports to tell the story of a man becoming a successful writer, but what appealed to me more was watching this character become a father. It’s not uncomplicated, of course; important relationships don’t always fly smoothly. Barrie’s wife resents the time he spends with the Llewelyn boys and their grandmother strongly disapproves — but that makes the story all the more true (in real life, Barrie’s wife eventually divorced him, and after Llewelyn’s death he became co-guardian, with the children’s grandmother, of the boys.) Barrie doesn’t need to do anything complicated, however; he spends time with the children, involves himself in their games, feeds their imaginations — the same simple things Bert does with the Banks children in Mary Poppins. The films are full of magic, it’s true, but the real stuff of family relationships doesn’t need special effects. As we near Father’s Day and as my family approaches our trip to London, I think about the journeys ahead for my boys. They have a long way to go, to get to London, to get to fatherhood. I hope it’s an easy flight.