Saving Mr. Banks takes us behind the development of the Disneyfication of the Disneyfication of Mary Poppins (how meta!), the movie rights to which author P.L. Travers was notoriously resistant to sign over.
If you're at all a fan of the resulting classic that emerged from all these creative disputes (I certainly am), it may puzzle you as to why Mary Poppins' original creator would be so resistant to what would become such a wonderful and enduring screen adaptation. But not to worry: Saving Mr. Banks offers up a tidy psychological explanation for Travers' attachment to her characters via flashbacks to her turbulent childhood in the outback town of Allora, Australia. The film manages to shoehorn many Poppins allusions into these sequences, which primarily explores her relationship with her severely depressed father (Colin Farrell), who puts on a brave smile and feeds his daughter's imagination while secretly drinking through his pain.
Conversely, it's not hard to imagine Walt Disney doing cartwheels in his cryogenic chamber at the thought of coming across as ineffably warm and winning as he does through Tom Hanks' slick performance. But such hagiography is to be expected from a film produced by the Mouse House itself. When we do finally meet Walt (they're all on a first name basis at the “happiest place on earth”), he's backlit by a glimmering trophy shelf stuffed with Emmys and Oscars, as though to beckon Academy members, “Vote for Saving Mr. Banks!”
As family entertainment with a cheery disposition, Saving Mr. Banks is pretty touch-and-go. The film's best scenes – involving Travers' work with screenwriter Don DaGradi and the songwriting Sherman brothers (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak) – are worth the price of a matinee, but those persistent flashbacks aren't always integrated elegantly.
At one point, Travers admonishes a Mickey Mouse doll left on her hotel room pillow by placing it in the corner and berating, “You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety.” One wonders if the irony of that line might be lost on its own authors, screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, whose script goes about its SUBTEXT in decidedly unsubtle fashion. Whether through the jarring exposition of Travers' backstory, or through an extended third-act monologue in which Walt becomes a Freudian sage and bluntly spells out all of Travers' theretofore unspoken insecurities, it isn't a piece of storytelling that seems to give its audience much credit.
Don't get me wrong. There's enough to enjoy in Saving Mr. Banks, particularly for Mary Poppins devotees. However, there's a specialness to this story that just never quite makes it to the screen. Its charms are not diminished by the missteps, but they are diluted by them.
**1/2 out of ****