Saving Mr. Banks is the story of the creative tug of war between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, the author and protector of Mary Poppins, which Disney had tried to turn into a film for nearly two decades. It’s soft and sweet and crowd-pleasing, and would threaten diabetic comas if it were not for the central character of Travers and the astringent performance by the eminent Emma Thompson. At least for most of the film, Travers is English to the core in her preferences, unthinkingly blunt and unknowingly harsh in her criticisms of most things American or Disney, and absolutely sure of the rightness of her prejudices.
The single best thing in the film is Thompson, and her performance alone is worth the price of admission and time. Her Travers doesn’t try to be difficult—she simply is. You can almost hear the dragging of her heels on the plane from England to L.A., and in every discussion that pits her vision of the film against Disney’s. If the script didn’t make you aware of her dire financial circumstances, you’d wonder why she would sacrifice a few weeks of her perfect English life to engage in slumming with the plebeians of Hollywood.
The continual friction between author and producer (and the music composers) is the thread that holds this together, though the script tries to offer us another one. The script wants us to follow the deep emotional reasons for Travers’ hesitance and resistance, and structurally, the film ultimately follows that path. But as sentimental and downright teary as that plotline becomes, it’s nowhere near as entertaining as the clash between Travers and the Disney vision of the film. In fact, turning Travers’ journey to America to her journey to her past is probably the weakest part of the film. It diverts us to a series of flashbacks that are too long and too many, and just too dappled in lush sunlight producing halo effects around little Travers, played by a cherub as preternaturally lovely as the older Travers was acerbic. Having the film development process turn into a cathartic experience is just a bit too convenient, and undercuts the lovely and entertaining tension of the Travers/Disney battles.
In fact, those battles are a great study in the reaction. Watching the various Disney personages reacting to Travers is a delight, and rarely overplayed. They give a quick look here, a surprised response there. Thompson reacting to the Wonderful World of Disney is a caustic pleasure, greatly because Thompson neither overplays nor underplays, but simply allows her dread and revulsion to be clearly and succinctly expressed. Apart from Thompson’s performance, it’s these little reactions throughout that are the highlight of the film.
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney does a fine job, but his Disney is perhaps a little too kind, too psychologically Freudian and not quite tough enough to have founded such an empire. While Thompson is clear and well defined, Hanks’ Disney is far less so, which ultimately cedes the film to her, which is only a win. But it might have been more exciting had this Walt Disney been deeper and sharper.
John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) is a master at presenting PG-13 or even R-rated material in a soft PG light. That could be a criticism, but it’s not. Some films are unnecessarily dark and gritty. Hancock has chosen to go in the opposite direction, and here it works. Travers’ father (Colin Farrell in a solid and change-of-pace performance) was an alcoholic who died an early death. It’s all there, but Hancock doesn’t push our face into the darker aspects of it. The always-solid Paul Giamatti plays a composite character with intelligence and charm, and even his late-in-the-film revelation doesn’t make the film any edgier. While this author usually prefers darker and edgier to lighter and sweeter, sometimes the choice to be gentle and honeyed is just the right approach.