A movie about Walt Disney, you say? Produced by Walt Disney Pictures? Surely, we can be forgiven for anticipating an exercise in corporate ancestor worship.
But no. Or not exactly. “Saving Mr. Banks” depicts Walt Disney’s yearslong seduction of the author Pamela Travers in pursuit of the film rights to her popular children’s book “Mary Poppins” — the subsequent basis of his Oscar-winning 1964 musical fantasy. While the movie may have “heartwarming holiday fare” all but engraved above its title, it’s entertainingly crafted holiday fare, and it seems likely to warm the hearts of all but the grimmest cynics. Whatever the accuracy of the events it portrays (splintery real-life edges have no doubt been carefully sanded down), the Disney effect overcomes any skepticism we might have; we accept the story because we want to believe.
The picture is illuminated by the glowing chemistry of its two stars — Emma Thompson, as the maddeningly prim Travers, and Tom Hanks, as the indefatigably affable Disney. Travers is introduced as a child in her native Australia. The year is 1906, and her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell, restrained and affecting) has just lost another job. His kids love him, though, and we see that his gift for storytelling is leaving an imprint on little Pamela. (Later, with the arrival of a no-nonsense governess, we see Travers’ most famous literary creation foreshadowed.)
The bulk of the story is set in 1961. Travers has, for many years, been coasting on the success of her best-selling book. (She actually went on to write several more “Poppins” novels.) But the royalties have now dried up, and a new income stream is desperately needed. She has been pursued for 20 years by Disney, a major “Mary Poppins” fan who’s determined to build a movie out of her famous creation. She always has resisted Walt’s sizable offers for the rights to “Mary Poppins,” but now she’s forced to hear him out. So Disney flies her to Los Angeles. She hates it — hates the easygoing California lifestyle, hates the unwanted chumminess of the people she meets. Even the sunshine is vulgar, she feels.
Her hostility is reinforced when she arrives at Disney headquarters and learns that the movie Walt has in mind is a musical — and that it also will contain animation. Maybe even dancing penguins. Worse yet, Dick Van Dyke! Travers is appalled. The story proceeds as a clash of personal cultures. Travers drives the Disney artists and songwriters nuts with her pedantic demands. (She has unwisely been given script approval.) But Walt never stops humoring her. She sees him as a purveyor of witless corn, but Disney, a Midwesterner, sees nothing at all wrong with that.
Thompson is so good here — carefully unfurling the hidden sorrows at the heart of Travers’ frosty personality — that we’re left with no choice but to embrace the movie’s own large portion of corn. And Hanks, with his trim mustache and easy warmth, is a perfect foil. He doesn’t just want the best for Travers; he wants the best for the whole world. (In fact, he wants a Disney world.)
There are appealing performances around the edges of the film, too, chiefly by Paul Giamatti, as the warmhearted limo driver who tries to lighten Travers up a little, and by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, as the Disney songwriters who bear the brunt of her most exasperating creative dictates. The movie is light on its feet and cleverly constructed (the immortal “Poppins” song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is buoyantly deployed), and it ends exactly where we know it must: in tears. Of happiness, if it need be noted.