P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson)—the irascible author of Mary Poppins—frets and complains bitterly throughout Saving Mr. Banks that her beloved story will lose its realistic edge in the hands of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). And John Lee Hancock’s film does a pretty impressive job of trying to force-feed gritty realism into a story that might’ve been better served focusing on the whimsy.
The fact-based narrative alternates between two timelines. In 1961, Travers visits California to work with Disney, composers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) on an approach to Mary Poppins that will satisfy the author so she’ll finally sign off on the film rights after a 20-year courtship. Flashbacks to 1906 Australia, meanwhile, show Travers as a child (Annie Buckley) with the beloved, alcoholic bank-manager father (Colin Farrell) who inspired Poppins’ Mr. Banks.
The focus at the outset seems to be on light comedy, as Travers fusses dismissively over California weather, her hotel room full of Disney paraphernalia and the proposed casting for the movie, with Thompson doing her best Generic Disdainful Brit. Hanks does a lovely job making Disney’s folksiness and Midwestern twang feel genuine, and there are a handful of amusing moments that make fine use of the culture clash as their foundation.
As for the flashback sequences, their nostalgic glow certainly emphasizes the idea that Travers is still working out some unresolved daddy issues. Yet it feels as though far too much time is spent underlining family dynamics that were clear after a couple of scenes, pulling everything toward the scene in which Disney cajoles Travers with his insight into her psychology. Saving Mr. Banks takes a snippet of movie-history trivia and tries to build it into something profound, as though it needed to add a spoonful of medicine to make the saccharine go down.
SAVING MR. BANKS
Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell