A half-century after the author P.L. Travers worried that her best-known character, Mary Poppins, would receive the Disney treatment, Travers herself is getting her rough edges sanded down in the Disney-approved biopic “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Charmingly nostalgic and sometimes syrupy, the movie centers on the efforts by Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) to cajole Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign over the rights to her book “Mary Poppins” — and how the headstrong Travers, on a trip to Hollywood in 1961, worked with Disney’s creative team while sparring with ol’ Walt.
Much of the script, by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, centers on how Travers and Disney butted heads. It’s the classic case of someone regularly saying “no” to a man who doesn’t take “no” for an answer. They argue over every detail of the “Mary Poppins” movie, from the inclusion of animation (she loathes cartoons) to whether Mr. Banks, the father of Mary’s charges, should have a mustache. (Walt insisted on this detail, and one only need look to the fuzz above his lip to understand why.)
For movie buffs, especially fans of the 1964 classic “Mary Poppins,” the choice bits are the scenes in which Travers gives her twopencecq (and more) to Disney’s creative team: screenwriter Don DiGardi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Those scenes illuminate the grind-it-out work of the creative process and allow Travers to soften around the edges as she works with people who care about Mary as much as she does.
Where director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) lets the movie get a little too gooey and sentimental is when Travers flashes back to her childhood in Australia. In these scenes, we see the young Travers (Annie Rose Buckley) idolizing her father (Colin Farrell), a bank manager who doted on his daughters at the expense of his work. Through the travails of Travers’ father, an alcoholic in constant pain from consumption, Hancock too handily connects the dots between the author’s life and Mary Poppins’ familiar icons — the hat, the umbrella and so on.
What holds “Saving Mr. Banks” together is the byplay between Thompson’s prim Travers and Hanks’ glad-handing Disney. Their sour-and-sweet chemistry, as Travers educates Disney about the true emotional meaning of her beloved book, helps the movie’s inauthentic moments go down like a spoonful of sugar.