Saving Mr. Banks is two movies crammed into one cumbersome, overlong drama. The good half is set in Burbank in 1961, when Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), after 20 years of requests, finally gets author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to travel from London and visit the studio to consider signing over the film rights to her beloved Mary Poppins book series. Travers is fiercely protective of the novels and has great disdain for the Disney brand of entertainment (“These books don’t lend themselves to chirping and prancing,” she huffs at him). But Travers is also broke and suffering from writers’ block, so she agrees to consider Disney’s proposal, under certain conditions: She will be involved in the writing of the screenplay, she will have final say over every detail of the film — and most important of all, the movie will have no animated characters whatsoever.
Thompson plays Travers as a stuffy, unhappy woman who is irritated by everything and everyone (“It smells like chlorine and sweat,” she says of Los Angeles when she steps out of the airport). Her crusty demeanor, along with the inspiration for her Mary Poppins books, are revealed via constant flashbacks to her past, when as a child (Annie Rose Buckley) she moved to the Australian outback and watched her banker father (Colin Farrell) slowly drink himself to death. Director John Lee Hancock ( The Alamo, The Blind Side) shoots Travers’ childhood in golden, sleep-inducing hues and drenched with bathos that is at odds with the inherent darkness of what Travers suffered. There are also way too many of them, constantly interrupting the fun of watching Travers collaborate with the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and composers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) trying their best to please this unpleasable woman.
Hanks plays Disney like a saintly father figure — he tells Travers he has chased after her for so long because he promised his daughters he’d turn their favorite book into a movie — and there are so few facets to him, the movie borders on hagiography (when Disney takes a reluctant Travers to a visit to Disneyland, the film also becomes an advertisement for its distributor). I wish Thompson would have had a little more fun with her portrayal of Travers — there’s no humor in her flintiness, no sass to her constant dissatisfaction. When she pitches a fit at the proposal of casting Dick Van Dyke in the lead, what should have been amusing comes off as annoying (imagine what Meryl Streep might have done with the role).
But Thompson does manage to make Travers into a fascinating person — a woman who refuses to compromise, even if it means losing everything, and doesn’t care whom she offends in the process. Predictably, by film’s end, Travers’ icy heart will have melted a little (Paul Giamatti plays the chauffeur who gradually gets past her defenses) and the film, of course, became a huge success — cartoon penguins and all.
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But outside of hardcore Mary Poppins fans who will relish the behind-the-scenes look at how the movie’s famous songs were composed and the characters designed, most people will come away from Saving Mr. Banks feeling like they just sat through a feature-length ad for the magic of Walt Disney, with Travers’ life tacked on as an afterthought.