For 20 years, Walt Disney avidly pursued the film rights to global bestseller “Mary Poppins,” and for 20 years, author P.L. Travers rebuffed the mogul’s tenacious advances, fearing the ways he might maul her beloved children’s book and character. But in 1961, faced with money troubles and dwindling sales, Travers finally relented, reluctantly traveling to LA and giving Walt and his artistic troika — screenwriter Don DaGradi (played in the film by Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers (BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman) — two weeks to convince her to agree to an adaptation.
This is the tale that “Saving Mr. Banks,” which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and its North American premiere at AFI FEST, sets out to tell, interspersed with flashbacks to Travers’ own difficult, unexpected childhood in the Australian Outback living with a doting but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and unhappy mother (Ruth Wilson). While Disney’s gang set out to woo her with imaginative storyboards and chirpy jingles, Travers’ past is unravelled in the guise of her 11-year-old self (compelling newcomer Annie Rose Buckley) to reveal how youthful traumas fed into the creation of the magical nanny fond of black umbrellas, Cockney chimney sweeps and No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
“Saving Mr Banks” is being trumpeted as the first narrative feature to portray Walt Disney (in cheerily avuncular fashion by Tom Hanks), although that ends up being one of the least interesting aspects of watching the behind-the-scenes battles on “Mary Poppins.” Disney hovers on the fringes while the film concentrates on the immovable wall of resistance that is P.L. Travers (a game Emma Thompson). There’s only a single face-to-face Travers vs. Disney encounter near the conclusion, back at her home in London, that offers Hanks the chance to stretch much beyond a skin-deep depiction of Uncle Walt.
As for Thompson, Travers is the actress’s best leading film role since Elinor Dashwood in “Sense And Sensibility,” 18 years ago, and she makes the Australian-born British transplant a curmudgeonly delight. In her hands, Travers is less fire-breathing gorgon than prickly, tut-tutting schoolmarm — far less fearsome, for instance, than Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.” The script, by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, goes out of its way to soften Travers up in daily encounters with Ralph, the relentlessly cheery chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) who shuttles her back and forth from the studio. That’s not a criticism, per se, because if the actress had aimed for absolute realism, audience empathy would have stayed dormant and, while there’s a perpetual comic glint in Thompson’s eye, she still makes Travers one mean biddy.
Since Walt Disney Pictures agreed to partner on this independent film–with Australia’s Essential Media and Hopscotch Films and Britain’s Ruby Films and BBC Films– which is focused on its beloved founder’s determination to turn “Mary Poppins” into a movie musical, it’s not surprising that there’s a healthy degree of Disneyfication in the presentation, more so in the ’61 strand than in the Australian segment, which necessitates a darker portrayal because of the events that take place and is well-acted by Farrell and Wilson.
For the real Sherman brothers, working with the irrational, infuriating Travers bordered on the traumatic, whereas in the film, directed with slightly generic efficiency by Disney favorite John Lee Hancock, the author’s icy combativeness can be overcome by jaunty persistence and toe-tapping musical numbers that, at one point, even get her up on her feet and dancing.
But take the film with a pinch of salt, or indeed a spoonful of sugar, and “Saving Mr. Banks” proves to be a robustly entertaining drama about a bruising Hollywood face-off which – guess what? – Disney won.
In our era of tentpoles, indies and not much in between, we may be seeing more and more backstage Hollywood movies that can enhance the value of storied library properties, in theory. Will Fox be tempted to recount the disastrous making of “Cleopatra” next? The studio dipped their toe in the water with “Hitchcock” (even if “Psycho” belonged to Universal), but if “Saving Mr. Banks” proves a hit, why not? One of the film’s principal triumphs is sending you out of the cinema wanting to march straight home and rewatch “Mary Poppins” to revel in the very elements that Travers hated most, from Dick Van Dyke’s terrible Cockney accent to animated penguins and some of the catchiest musical numbers ever committed to celluloid.