Director: John Lee Hancock
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti
There’s a whole heap of elfin twinkling going on in Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the clash between Mary Poppins author Pamela Travers and Walt Disney, who unsuccessfully courted the writer for two decades in hopes of landing the film rights to her popular books about a starchy, no-nonsense, can-do nanny.
Tom Hanks plays Disney, all avuncular, kind and twinkly. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak twinkle, too, as Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, the peppy, eager-to-please young songwriters of catchy ditties like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Even Colin Farrell, in too many flashbacks to Travers’ troubled childhood in Australia, has a gleam and twinkle in his eye as the writer’s constantly failing dreamer of a father, an alcoholic bank clerk. It’s up to Emma Thompson as Travers to slice through all the treacle. Happily, that she does, and very crisply and cleanly, too. “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons,” she barks at Disney, trying to protect her literary legacy heroine—although badly needing money, the constantly complaining, self-protective shrew caved in more than she realized, as is dramatized in the making-of-Mary Poppins scenes that are so good, you wish there were many more of them.
Thompson, who created a magical nanny of her own named McPhee, gives a full-bore performance as the irascible but oddly likeable harpy. It’s like the role is tailor-made for her. She’s tough, smart, witty and, under that helmet of hair and rhino hide, vulnerable. The real-life Travers was a disagreeable and often unforgivable woman who changed her name, reinvented her past, had at least two long-term lesbian relationships and, at 40, adopted a boy she eventually sent off to boarding schools, leaving the boy’s twin brother to a life of grinding poverty. Because Saving Mr. Banks is Disney financed, the John Lee Hancock–directed film from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel, you won’t be seeing or hearing any of that. You also won’t see Hanks playing the visionary producer-showman-huckster’s legendary darker side. You also certainly won’t see him chain-smoke, even though the real-life Disney died of lung cancer several years after the release of Mary Poppins. Poppins turned out to be a massive box-office success, but Travers despised it, accused Disney of utter betrayal and refused to let him or his successors make any sequels. Don’t expect a documentary here. Think of Saving Mr. Banks as holiday fare—gooey, thick, often irresistible eggnog with Thompson on hand to supply a welcome kick of rum.