No feathers, animated or otherwise, will be ruffled by Saving Mr. Banks, director John Lee Hancock’s genial fictionalized account of how Walt Disney seduced Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers into allowing, for 5 percent of the gross, the supernatural caregiver to become a shiny Disney version of herself.
Mainly the film is a testament to Emma Thompson. She’s swell as Travers, the Australian-born resident of London who travels to Los Angeles in 1961 for a couple of contentious weeks in the pre-production life of the film released three years later.
There are other fine actors onscreen, among them Tom Hanks as Disney and, in a fabricated role of a limo driver and horn-rimmed sounding board, Paul Giamatti. But Thompson’s the show. Each withering put-down, every jaundiced utterance, lands with a little ping. Then she makes you cry, by gum.
If Thompson wins an Academy Award for Saving Mr. Banks, well, sometimes these Oscars go to elevator operators—performers who lift routine material to a higher floor.
Travers went into Disney negotiations for her stories’ film rights with certain rules in mind. No animation of any kind. An all-English cast. As little overt sentiment as possible. She had script approval and, though the movie fudges this, her own script treatment in development.
But Disney won out. The songs, in part, won her over. Travers left L.A. with wildly mixed emotions but pleased with the financial prospects, and Mary Poppins became a monster hit.
With diagrammatic purpose, Saving Mr. Banks breaks down its hard-shell protagonist’s exterior with a series of interlaced flashbacks, revealing how, and why, young Georgia Goff became Pamela Travers. Saddled with a charming but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and a despondent, suicidal mother (Ruth Wilson), the Goff girls living in the remote turn-of-the-century Australian outback were saved by the presence of their stern but loving aunt (Rachel Griffiths). This was the Poppins prototype, the savior figure in the young Travers’ life.
Saving Mr. Banks turns Disney into a Chicago-born version of Sigmund Freud, doggedly solving the riddle of his reluctant author’s unhappiness to secure her legal approval to shoot Mary Poppins the Disney way.
The writing scenes make for some rich high comedy. As Disney house songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak act as puppy dog foils. Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith treat everyone gently and with the utmost respect.
The sharper edges of the Disney/Travers relationship, well-documented by various sources, have been rounded off, but the actors suggest what they can, where they can. Travers’ personal life is not dealt with. There’s a single oblique reference to her own son. Some of this relates to streamlined storytelling; some of it, I think, has more to do with avoiding potential ruffled feathers. This is, after all, a Disney film, in large part about Walt Disney, to whom Hanks lends gravity, sincerity and high, true motivations for getting at Travers’ secrets.
Director Hancock knows a few things about directing crowd-pleasing heartwarmers, having made The Blind Side. This one wouldn’t work without Thompson. Happily, she and Julie Andrews have something in common as performers: a sparkle, and a wizardly combination of wiles and ease.
Saving Mr. Banks (PG-13) ★★★☆☆