The Walt Disney Company delivers a love letter to itself in “Saving Mr. Banks.” But though it embraces a host of clichés and tugs all too insistently at the heartstrings even while its main character is flintily British, most viewers should respond with affection to this slickly manipulative crowd-pleaser.
The plot hinges on Walt Disney’s long, difficult courtship of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to secure the movie rights to her beloved “Mary Poppins” books. After resisting the cartoon mogul’s blandishments for two decades, the snooty author, suddenly in need of money, agreed in 1961 to come to Hollywood to dicker with Disney (Tom Hanks) and brainstorm with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) before deciding whether to sign over her creation to the tender mercies of its potential adapters. Travers’ intention is to make her demands so uncompromising—no animation, no songs, no Dick Van Dyke, and at one point not even anything red—that the negotiations will inevitably fall apart. And the scenes of her browbeating the cowed trio as she issues commands and disdains their suggestions are certainly amusing, even if—as the brief tape of one of Travers’ actual pronouncements played over the final credits suggests—Thompson is even more brusque than the original (but, needless to say, with a soft heart beneath the hard exterior).
And of course eventually Travers gave in, even attending the premiere of ”Mary Poppins” in 1964; and “Saving Mr. Banks” is about how her resistance was broken down. The key, screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith explain, lay in Travers’ childhood in Australia, where she was born as Helen Goff and lived a hardscrabble life with her beloved but alcoholic father Travers (Colin Farrell), overstressed mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and two sisters. Their script juxtaposes scenes of Mr. Goff’s eventual collapse—and the arrival of Helen’s Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), a sort of prototypical Mary Poppins, to take charge of the household during his final illness. Ellie is, after a fashion, the Rosebud of Travers’ story, and it’s by decoding P.L.’s secret and impressing upon her how giving him the power to convey her stories’ message to the world through popular images will liberate her that Disney convinces her to sign over the rights to him. The suggestion that a Disneyesque transformation of the Poppins character might have some sort of cathartic release for Travers is more than a little goofy, of course, as is the equally schmaltzy relationship the movie fashions between Travers and Ralph (Paul Giamatti, in nebbish mode), the incessantly good-natured studio driver assigned to her; not only does he have a disabled daughter who just loves Mary Poppins, forging a bond between them, but he takes it upon himself to show up after three years to take Travers to the premiere, signaling that she nervous woman should go into the theatre with a supportive nod of the head when she momentarily hesitates. Aw!
One might also take issue with the predictably airbrushed portrait of Disney, played by the eternally likable Hanks as a genial, if canny, Uncle Walt—a benign but iron-willed despot who knows what he wants and is skilled in getting it. The portrait is certainly at odds with what others that have recently been put forward; you might check out Philip Glass’ new opera “The Perfect American” (the premiere of which is just out on DVD and Blu-ray) for a very different, quite negative perspective on him. Still, Hanks manages to bring a few dark touches to Walt along the way—a remark on freezing his body, some secret smoking—that are probably all the studio could tolerate. Overall, though, Disney comes across as an amiable mogul, though a very determined one, and his admirers certainly won’t find anything to disturb them here.
And everyone else contributes to help “Mr. Banks” push all the right buttons. Director John Lee Hancock is an old hand at making such stuff work, having turned “The Blind Spot” into a mega-hit, and his crew—cinematographer John Schwartzman (Jason’s half-brother), production designer Michael Corenblith, art director Lauren Polizzi and costume designer Daniel Orlandi and editor Mark Livolsi—give the images a rich, luminous sheen and keep them moving along nicely, even in the transitions between Burbank and Queensland (and the inevitable inserts from the finished “Poppins” picture). Special mention should be made of the musical contributions, not only of composer Thomas Newman but in the excerpts from the Sherman’s beloved tunes.
The supporting cast is fine as well, with Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and Novak adding a good deal of affability to the studio’s trio of adapters, Giamatti his patented elfin charm to the limo drive, and Kathy Baker warmth as well as efficiency to Disney’s long-time secretary. On the Down Under front, Wilson and Griffiths both do stellar work, and though Farrell might have dialed things down a trifle as Goff, who on the basis of the evidence provided here probably would have been diagnosed as manic depressive, Annie Rose Buckley does strong work as young Helen.
You can feel the wheels turning throughout “Saving Mr. Banks.” But though it’s a movie that leaves nothing to chance, in the end it really doesn’t matter. It will make most viewers feel good, even if they realize how thoroughly they’re being manipulated. After all, that’s never been a problem for past Disney product, “Mary Poppins” included.