Saving Mr. Banks is a delightful film that manages to tell the story of the making of Mary Poppins without an excessive amount of Disney aggrandizing, which is a rather impressive feat considering the film was released by the studio that Walt built. He is certainly portrayed in a flattering light, which is not difficult when you cast Tom Hanks; however, the movie belongs to Emma Thompson as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, whose emotionally rich and tragic back story not only adds dramatic heft to this film, it actually enriches the experience of watching Mary Poppins.
The film tells the story of the efforts of Walt Disney (Hanks) to buy the film rights to the novel Mary Poppins from its author, P.L.Travers (Thompson). This proves to be no easy task, as the British author is both fiercely protective of her book and generally a disagreeable person. Disney flies Travers from London to Los Angeles to meet with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). She and the filmmakers clash immediately, as she shoots down all their ideas, from any use of animation or even making the story a musical. Travers is at first an unsympathetic character, but becomes less so as flashbacks peppered throughout the narrative illuminate her childhood growing up in the Australian outback with an alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).
Director John Lee Hankcock transitions seamlessly between Australia in 1909 and Hollywood in 1964, slowly peeling back the layers of Travers' life and slowly revealing that her childhood not only inspired almost every aspect of Mary Poppins but also inform her prickly attitude toward Walt Disney and his team. She so desperately fears that Disney intends to ruin her book with his particular form of whimsy that she makes up her mind to turn him down before they even meet. A telling scene early in the film shows her aghast when she arrives at her hotel room to find it festooned with plush Disney dolls with a giant Mickey sitting and smiling on her bed.
It is impossible to exaggerate how good Emma Thompson is in this film. Her Travers is not a very nice person, and she doesn't achieve some miraculous transformation by the end, but Thompson makes her completely human and sympathetic. As the details of her childhood emerge it is impossible not to sympathize with Travers, and Thompson manages to hint at the tragedy beneath her stoic British exterior. Hanks looks nothing like Disney, but he manages to capture the gentle, avuncular nature of Uncle Walt so well that their physical differences are unimportant. The supporting cast is excellent too, particularly Colin Farrell as Travers' loving but deeply troubled father and Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Travers' limo driver who at first annoys her but gradually develops into "the only American I like" with his persistent optimism and friendliness.
Composer Thomas Newman borrows liberally from the music of the Mary Poppins film, particularly the song "Feed the Birds"; a masterstroke, as it is one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies ever written. There is a moment, late in the movie, when Travers finally gives herself over, both literally and figuratively, to the magic that Walt Disney embodied. It is a fleeting few seconds of screen time, but I confess it brought me to tears. Saving Mr. Banks is a sweet, poignant, wonderful film.