There’s enough spin at work in Saving Mr. Banks—a Walt Disney Pictures account of the making of the 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins—to make audiences dizzy, which is essential to the film’s design. By neatly assembling an uplifting weepie out of a few choice lies, it’s almost as pleasant a fantasy as Mary Poppins itself.
Over a twenty-year period, Walt Disney (here played by Tom Hanks) negotiated with P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) for the rights to her Mary Poppins books, and Saving Mr. Banks depicts the last stretch during which Disney finally wore her down. As scripted by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, and directed by John Lee Hancock (the risible The Blind Side), the film makes out the uptight Travers as the one needing saving by the cheery Disney. (Meanwhile, the title Saving Mr. Banks rather pathetically pretends to offer deep insight.)
Before granting the rights, Travers allows herself to be flown out for an “exploratory trip” to the Disney lot, where she makes life miserable for screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Travers nitpicks the script and production design as she considers whether or not to take the plunge with Disney and line a dwindling bank account. Regular flashbacks to 1906 Australia explore Travers’ upbringing under a charming but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and suggest connections to the eventual Mary Poppins.
The 1961 passages are certainly entertaining, especially when Travers is at her most tart: examining the Winnie the Pooh plush toy, one of many gifted to her as part of her Beverly Hills Hotel suite, she frowns: “Poor A.A. Milne.” Thompson gives a typically well-calibrated performance, practically perfect in each prickly, persnickety beat. But the script’s accumulation of contrivances—including a growing friendship between Travers and her kind and patient driver (a likeable Paul Giamatti)—arrives at a climax that surely has Travers spinning in her grave. (Real-life spoiler: Travers detested the result of her collaboration with Disney, taking her final shots at it in her last will and testament.)
As for Disney, Hanks’ performance doesn’t effectively imitate so much as suggest an essence. But the man remains slippery: he’s part Barnum-esque huckster, part twinkly art-saint. Instead of seeming well-rounded, he comes off as a puzzling mass of contradictions, a businessman shrewd enough to pursue the Poppins property and ingratiate himself to Travers by recounting having once not sold “the mouse,” but one who also seems to have never heard of a pen name. Though allowed minor frustrations and a few tight-lipped smiles, he hardly seems any more real than a movie angel, given to wisdom like “We restore order with imagination.” Saving Mr. Banks most resembles the 2004 film Finding Neverland, another gooey “origin story” rewrite of entertainment history shored up with movie stars.