From its opening “Walt Disney presents” ident onward, John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” is cloaked in an inescapable veil of “meta.” A Disney film about a Disney film, it presents itself with two immediate challenges: firstly, in telling the story of how straight-laced, fearsomely uptight British author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was eventually persuaded to hand over the rights to her novel “Mary Poppins” to the Disney company, how (or will) the film attempt to circumvent glossy self-congratulation?
After all, the Disney company has every right to garland itself. Upon its original release in 1964, “Mary Poppins” (whose director Robert Stevenson gets nary a mention here, by the way) went on to gross over $100 million, picked up five Oscars from 13 nominations, and has since become woven into the fabric of popular culture. Secondly, given we know that the film was made, how will the film overcome its built-in foregone conclusion to emerge as a compelling, surprising work?
It’s a relief to find that “Saving Mr. Banks” — for the majority of its running time, at least — avoids the temptation to indulge in company auto-hagiography. Boasting a canny, surprisingly satirical script from first-time British screenwriter Kelly Marcel, it mines considerable dramatic and comic weight from its decision to focus on fish-out-of-water Travers, rather than the Disney dream machine, or Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks, avuncular and nicely self-effacing in what is essentially a supporting role).
Thompson, here in her first genuine lead since since the Poppins-inspired “magical nanny” fantasy “Nanny McPhee,” plays Travers as a flinty loner, fiercely protective of her own creative property, and dead-set against what she perceives as the inherent vulgarity of Hollywood. It’s a testament to Thompson’s subtle talent, but also the extent to which overt “Britishness” can still be leveraged for comic purposes (consider the “Wee Britain” thread in the third season of “Arrested Development”), that Travers is as likable and amusing as she is.
The laughs come thick and fast in the early stages, which repeatedly pitch Travers’ standoffish reserve against the beaming benevolence of the Disney dream factory. Travers is bombarded with teeth-flashing politeness, gifts and praise almost as soon as she steps off the plane, but she’s not impressed: “What is all this jollification?” she hisses, enunciating that final word like a lemon-sharp pejorative rather than the expression of celebration it is.
Meanwhile, in the number of lively, crowd-pleasing re-imaginings of fraught recording sessions, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman are amusing — if a little Tweedle Dee ‘n’ Tweedle Dum — as crack songwriting duo the Sherman brothers. They provide a satisfying evocation of an era of moviemaking gone by. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Disney joint, “Saving Mr. Banks” is notable for its general generosity of spirit and good-humor: Only the vaguely patronizing characterization of Travers’ driver (Paul Giamatti, in characteristically schlubby form) sticks in the craw.
Despite its breezy veneer, “Saving Mr. Banks” goes deeper into the emotions of its central character than we might expect. In addition to Thompson’s nuanced turn, emotional ballast is provided by a parallel, 1906-set backstory detailing Travers’ upbringing in Australia, although the connection is not initially made apparent (as a girl, Travers is known as “Ginty” Goff). The story is evocatively shot and well-performed, in particular by Colin Farrell — quavering soulfully as only he can — as Travers’ alcoholic father.
However, these sequences eventually begin to feel schematic, and their psychological connections become too evidently on-the-nose. The backstory begins to dominate the final third without adding a great deal to the admittedly intriguing central concept that “Mary Poppins” is an artistic working-out of Travers’ daddy issues. Yet these sequences also give rise to the film’s most tantalizing subtext: Travers, with her full range of prim and proper Britishisms and tart disavowals of perceived American vulgarity, is just as much of a creation as any of her characters. It is to Marcel’s credit that this thread is never made especially overt. Instead, its mere suggestion contributes to the general sense of melancholy that lingers over Travers like a cloud.
Ultimately, “Saving Mr Banks” is witty, well-crafted and well-performed mainstream entertainment which, perhaps unavoidably, cleaves to a well-worn Disney template stating that all problems – however psychologically deep-rooted – can be overcome. And perhaps we shouldn’t be overly surprised at occasional lapses into sentimentality from the director behind triumph-over-adversity films like “The Rookie” and “The Blind Side.” But it casts fresh new light on a classic Hollywood story, and is anchored by a fine turn from Thompson. Her blend of steeliness and vulnerability really lingers in the memory.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its blue-chip headlining cast, impeccable family-friendly credentials and a significant, built-in degree of popular culture origin story intrigue, “Saving Mr. Banks” looks a solid bet for box-office success. In Oscar terms, it would be a real shock to see Thompson overlooked, while Hanks’ low-key turn could see him sneak into the supporting field. However, it might be too slight for the major awards.