This Christmas, Disney buys itself the gift of historical revisionism with Saving Mr. Banks, an extremely rose-colored portrait of the relationship between Walt Disney and British novelist P.L. Travers. As the story goes, Disney spent more than 20 years hounding Travers for the rights to her most famous character, the magical nanny Mary Poppins. He finally succeeded in 1961, but with the condition that Travers, who was fiercely protective of her intellectual property, got final script approval. The author rather notoriously made life difficult for the filmmakers, objecting to everything from the casting of Dick Van Dyke to the inclusion of cartoon penguins to the very idea of her novel being turned into a musical. Eventually, however, she relented—by most accounts, because she needed the money—and Disney went forward with his sentimentalized version of Mary Poppins. The irony of Saving Mr. Banks is that it takes this true story of Hollywood conflict, of artistic integrity pitted against studio moxie, and gives it the same warm-and-fuzzy treatment the company gave Poppins. One woman’s failed battle to stop her work from being Disneyfied has itself been Disneyfied.
When it comes to vigilantly protecting an icon, Travers has nothing on the gatekeepers at the Mouse House. In what’s being sold as the first depiction of Walt Disney in a mainstream movie, Tom Hanks turns up the benevolence—the twinkle-in-his-eye charm, the bemused good humor—to portray the world-famous animation mogul. He finds a classic foil in Travers, the infamously unyielding writer, whom Emma Thompson plays as an incorrigible curmudgeon. Flown to Los Angeles to provide input on the preproduction of Disney’s Mary Poppins movie, she becomes an immediate thorn in the side of screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman).
At its best, Saving Mr. Banks is in that writers’ room, mining differences of opinion for combative comedy; Novak, especially, has the Office-honed chops to make impatience funny. It’s a pity, then, that Travers seems to suffer from a chronic case of the flashbacks: Dramatizing her memories, the film frequently leaps back in time to turn-of-the-century Australia, where the author as a young girl watches hopelessly while her doting, idealistic father (Colin Farrell, terrific in a thankless role) succumbs to alcoholism. These little-house-on-the-Outback passages are meant to illustrate the personal parallels between the Travers’ life and work, with Poppins patriarch Mr. Banks a clear stand-in for the actual father she lost. (He supposedly dropped dead when she was 7.) In truth, they make the film feel like involuntary channel surfing—the equivalent of switching between a frothy showbiz comedy and a maudlin kitchen-sink drama.
Why was Travers so adamant, so stubbornly uncompromising, about the adaptation of her work? To hear Saving Mr. Banks tell it, there was a simple psychological rationale for her reluctance. (Short answer: She had daddy issues.) That angle feels not just overly simplistic, but also convenient: Were the film to merely accept Travers’ distrust of Disney at face value, it might risk suggesting she was right to worry about what this corporate giant would do with her beloved characters. So, no, she’s just got a problem, and it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by a guided tour of Disneyland, regular chats with a kindly chauffeur (Paul Giamatti, rarely this upbeat), and a climactic Tom Hanks monologue that’s about 25 percent honest emotion, 75 percent emotional manipulation. Depicting its hesitant heroine as a kind of Scrooge figure, whose cranky, principled stance can only be conquered by the magic of Disney, Saving Mr. Banks plays like a celebration of selling out. Naturally, the film neglects to note how much Travers actually hated the finished Mary Poppins movie. She’d probably have hated this one, too.