Based on the true story of Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) attempts to convince cantankerous “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers (Emma Tompson) to sell him the movie rights to the story, “Saving Mr. Banks” may be the only documented case of a writer holding an entire studio hostage.
Walt Disney made a promise to his daughter that would take twenty years to fulfill.
The young girl loved the magical nanny Mary Poppins, and wanted her father to bring her to life on the big screen. Trouble was, writer P.L. Travers wanted nothing to do with Disney.
“These books,” she said, “don’t lend themselves to chirping and prancing.” Fearing his adaptation of Poppins would careen “toward a happy ending like a kamikaze,” she tried to explain that Mary was the “enemy of whimsy and sentiment.”
Still, Disney wouldn’t take no for an answer and that’s where “Saving Mr. Banks” begins.
In a last ditch attempt to woo her, Disney flies Travers to Hollywood to work on a script with songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). The idea is to shape a movie that everyone can live with, but Travers, a pinched women whose withering remarks leave welts, is uncooperative.
(Side note: If she really was this contrary in real life, one has to wonder how the controlling Travers would have felt about having her actual life portrayed one screen.)
As the movie unfolds a psychological drama reveals itself in the form of flashbacks to Travers’s life as a child in 1907 Queensland, Australia. Turns out her contrary nature with the filmmakers comes from a deep seeded desire to protect the memory of her father, bank manager Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), a loveable scamp who drowned his inner torment with a sea of booze, and was the inspiration for the “Mary Poppins’s” patriarch, Mr. Banks.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a serious movie about a whimsical movie. It also has darker underpinnings than you might imagine about the origins of “Mary Poppins.” The glossy Disney sheen casts its glow but the tone of the film is downbeat. Travers is a tough cookie, but heartbreakingly so. She’s a little girl lost, the product of an unhappy childhood that haunts her into adulthood.
It’s a character that could have been a flat line, a portrait of an unhappy woman with a perm-scowl and a bad attitude, but as Thompson allows her icy façade to melt Travers takes on dimensions. By the time we realize that Mary Poppins is not there to save the children but the troubled father the movie starts to pluck the heartstrings but because of Thompson’s skill it doesn’t feel manipulative.
Hanks is effortless as the folksy Disney. He hands in a quiet but lovingly rendered portrait with some real heart and lots of nuggets of wisdom.
Ditto Schwartzman and Novak, who breathe life into the creative process with enthusiastic performances and Paul Giamatti as limo driver Ralph. It’s a supporting role that doesn’t forward the story much but does add some nice light moments that seem to blunt some of Travers’s more deeply set psychological issues.
On the minus side “Saving Mr. Banks” hopscotches between time zones in Hollywood and Australia, a contrivance that slows both stories down, dividing the focus and keeping the audience off kilter for the entire running time. It’s a tough balance and the film doesn’t quite pull it off, but makes the uniformly excellent performances to cover the movie’s languid pacing.