P.L. Travers would probably have a lot of complaints about Saving Mr. Banks — there are plenty of historical inaccuracies and Disneyfied whitewashes. Irksome though they are, however, my chief issue is with the film’s devolution into a simpering slog. One might expect the Mouse House’s recounting of the behind-the-scenes rigors of mounting the film version of Mary Poppins to have rounded edges and forgiving representations of Disney personnel (oh, to think of the Rashomon-style version of this movie), but what’s most unfortunate is that the film’s true inspiration — the reluctant and curmudgeonly author of the source material — is presented as a redundant shrew in need of taming by everyone’s favorite uncle, Walt Disney. By all accounts, she was more admirably fierce, and her story, while painful and heart-tugging, was certainly less of a treacly bummer.
Disregarding any dissenting opinion – which, on the account of this film, was always Walt’s way – Disney is pitching this would-be warm and fuzzy version of dicey studio history as prime Oscar bait, with two former Oscar winners leading the charge. Emma Thompson plays the stuffy Travers and Tom Hanks takes on the iconic Walt Disney, in a pairing that should’ve generated more sparks than it ultimately does. The notion of a Disney v. Travers 15-round bout over sunny musical numbers and animated penguins sounds like delicious Hollywood inside baseball. Unfortunately, the filmmakers refuse to portray Walt as anything less than a secular saint and P.L. as anything more than a cantankerous sitcom character.
That cantankerous sitcom character, by the way, is the best thing Saving Mr. Banks has going for it… or maybe that’s just how great Emma Thompson is. She’s so good, in fact, that for the first half of the movie I was totally on board. The setup: after years of rebuffing Disney’s efforts to obtain the rights to Mary Poppins but finding herself in rather desperate financial straits, Travers reluctantly agrees to fly to L.A. and meet with Disney himself. When she arrives, no stops remain un-pulled in the Mouse Man’s pursuit of his goal, from the lavish hotel suite to the personal chauffer (a refreshingly happy Paul Giamatti) to the dogged efforts of famous songwriting duo Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), who literally prance about the Disney offices in an effort to swoon the disagreeable author. It’s a very conventional fish-out-of-water premise that works precisely because Thompson is a fabulous immovable wall for these good-natured chaps to push against; she plays the part note-perfect, making Travers’ obstinance funny and endearing. Everyone else is playing her straight men – even Hanks, a presumed Best Supporting Actor nominee on pedigree alone, whose performance is professional but not extraordinary.
It’s not Hanks’ fault – he is doing as he was asked, which is to play the figurehead version of Mickey’s originator without much depth or nuance. This screenplay, by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is interested in the surface image rather than the behind-the-scenes reality. As the Sherman brothers play their famous ditties with indefatigable smiles, Travers looks on in abject horror, and Walt steps in for two scenarios: when a wizened uncle figure is required, and when the movie needs its salesman. If there is one trait the film wants to communicate to the audience regarding Walt Disney, it’s that he was an unwavering seller, always pitching, and willing to twist arms — but in the most charming way possible, of course.
Travers is the film’s primary source of depth, and not just because of Thompson’s wonderful performance. A series of flashbacks show us the author’s youth – she loved her father (played with adequate charm by Colin Farrell), who was fanciful and imaginative but unsuccessful in business and prone to drink. When he fell ill, a nanny was hired to help run the household. Clearly, this nanny (Rachel Griffiths, in an ultimately slim and thankless role) became the impetus for Mary Poppins, though in real life, there were fewer spoonfuls of sugar.
In theory, pulling back on the veil on the otherwise stiff and inscrutable P.L. Travers would seem fascinating…and pieces of this film are. But once the charm of the premise wears thin, we’re left with sequences that alternate between repetitive pre-production meetings between the gung-ho creative types and a sneering Travers, and increasingly glum flashbacks centered on coughing and tears. The narrative momentum grinds slowly to a finale, set during the 1964 premiere of the Poppins film, which feels dramatically empty. That’s likely because the film opts to sidestep the real drama of that premiere — how Travers had to request an invitation, how she hated the finished product, and how Disney ignored her final pleas to excise the film’s animated sequences. Now that would’ve been an ending.