This time of year Hollywood should just take out a giant full page ad that reads: "Make a movie about us and we will love you forever!” Hollywood loves movies about making movies, and from the moment Disney revealed the plot of Saving Mr. Banks, which follows the contentious battle to complete 1964's beloved classic Mary Poppins, it's been pegged as a future Oscar contender. Maybe that will still be the case, maybe not, but for all the talent and Disney cozying up for some Oscar gold, the film simply isn't very good and won't make you care a whit about Mary Poppins or its author, P.L. Travers
Unfortunately the entire point of the film is to make us care about Travers (Emma Thompson), the Australian author who famously fought Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for years before she'd allow him to adapt the first of her Mary Poppins novels. When the movie begins she's in dire financial straits and has started to listen to Disney's offers, albeit reluctantly. She has no desire of selling the rights to Mary Poppins, and at first we're expected to believe it's just another case of a creator protecting the integrity of their work. When she arrives in Los Angeles to negotiate, it might as well be a hostage negotiation for all the enthusiasm she displays. Not only is she snotty and rude to Disney, who is merely hoping to fulfill a promise he made to his daughter, but she's a complete snot to the screen and song writers (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak). She's even dismissive of her well-meaning driver (Paul Giamatti), an everyman always "keeping on the sunny side of life" so to speak.
Disney does what nobody else can understand, allowing her to take part in the movie's production even though she hasn't signed a deal. She takes every opportunity to point out how repulsive she finds the entire ordeal, and arguments over every bit of minutiae she can find play out ad nauseum. She doesn't want any songs...or any animation...and she has a problem with the color red so there can't be any of that. The entire purpose of the film up to this point seems to be showing just how ugly Travers was, and well, they succeeded because she's absolutely awful.
The trouble is that the ultimate goal is to make us sympathize with her, and to uncover the reasons she's holding on to Mary Poppins so tightly. Thus a parallel narrative unfolds through flashback, chronicling her childhood in Australia where she worships her fun-loving, frolicking drunk of a father (Colin Farrell, never been better really). Directed lovingly by John Lee Hancock, these scenes are at first a welcome, very Disney-esque look at the influence Travers' imaginative father had on the surreal world she created around Mary Poppins, and explains in some way why she considers the work so sacred. However, they quickly become a distraction as her father's personal demons begin to take over, dampening the film's jovial spirit without shedding much light on Travers' unforgivable attitude as an adult. The script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith heaps on one mawkish beat after another before but never quite makes the connection between the hopeful young Travers and the older one who is busy scolding everybody.
Since this is a Disney movie and Hanks is playing Walt Disney, one can be forgiven for assuming his portrayal would be a little thin. But Hanks is too good for that, and with a script that treats Disney far better than it does Travers, we're allowed to see him as both kind-hearted and a shrewd businessman. His outgoing, wizened Jiminy Cricket personality makes for a soothing, calming presence and, although he's very much a supporting character, the film loses much of its warmth when he's away. That's because the film gets mighty chilly every time Thompson is on screen. They're much better together when they can bicker and quarrel like an old married couple from two vastly different worlds. Thompson, whose Nanny McPhee movies were clearly inspired by Travers, gives the role everything she's got but is consistently let down by the script. She's been a hater the entire movie and her transformation into a kinder, gentler Travers never feels earned.
The film bends over backwards for a happy-ish ending; giving the impression Travers was mostly pleased with Disney's completed work. She really wasn't, but to say otherwise would be to throw a wet blanket over everything. Better a happy ending than the truth, right? While Saving Mr. Banks may be must-see viewing for Mary Poppins fans, others won't find anything magical about it.