It's no surprise that a movie about Disney is so Disney-ish, even with one of the main characters spending considerable time complaining about how schmaltzy Disney is.
But there's real heart in "Saving Mr. Banks," the story of how Walt Disney finally convinced "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers to sell him the rights to her beloved story. Supposedly, it took him 20 years to do this after promising his kids he would bring Mary Poppins alive on the big screen.
How much of the story is true is questionable, but it really doesn't matter. This is a winning tale about the showdown between Disney's eternal optimism and Travers' sincere but comedic curmudgeonly attitude. Underneath all that, it explores the author's tortured relationship with her father, and how it shaped her life -- and maybe film history.
Just bring some Kleenex, especially if you have daddy issues. Disney wants you to cry and, even if you're aware of that and somewhat resent it, you probably will anyway. Get over it.
Tom Hanks is typically great as Walt ("call me Walt") Disney, portraying the iconic film tycoon as your favorite uncle -- gregarious, earnest, cheery, someone who will happily use kindness to wear you down until his ulterior motives are satisfied. Emma Thompson is magnetic playing the haughty British author Travers, who treats her story like a devoted Christian would her Bible. She doesn't understand the United States, she abhors Los Angeles and Disney's "silly cartoons," she hates the actors Disney wants to cast, and she doesn't particularly care for the music written by the Sherman Brothers, one of the most successful songwriting teams in movie history. She'd rather see live penguins dance than watch animated versions -- and doesn't want the color red to appear in the picture. Anywhere.
"I've simply gone off the color," she says.
Set in 1961, the clash of wills between Disney and Travers (who has everyone walking on eggshells around her) is predictably funny and enhanced by a strong cast of supporting actors (including Bradley Whitford, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). On its surface, it's a fun behind-the-scenes story that most of us didn't know, involving two iconic personas.
But things get a little more interesting, and dicey, when the film starts digging up Travers' childhood in rural Australia. It's pure pop psychology cliché to suggest that Travers' resistance to the great Walt Disney was rooted in her own childhood issues, and it could be insulting to Travers' memory if not handled correctly. Fortunately, it mostly works. For one thing, the acting in the subplot is first rate. Colin Farrell plays Robert Goff Travers, the writer's charming rogue of an alcoholic father, while Annie Rose Buckley is wonderful as the young Travers. It's difficult to not feel a tremendous amount of empathy for these characters. That, in turn, builds empathy for the adult Travers.
There are some bumps along the way, though, including a lack of focus on why Travers is putting herself through hell with Disney in America. The filmmakers assume we know it's because she needs the money, but that's not depicted convincingly. Is she really a miserable person who needs Disney to prompt her to sift through her past, thereby saving her? Or is it Disney who makes her miserable? Or both?
"Mr. Banks" is directed by John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side"), who obviously does well with syrupy tales. But even if this comes off like an ad for Disney, it's convincing and contains some of Disney's patented magic -- especially with a predictable, yet effective, emotional ending. To expect anything different from Disney wouldn't be realistic.
Rating: PG-13 (intense emotional issues, some unsettling images)
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman,
B.J. Novak, Annie Rose Buckley
Director: John Lee Hancock
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes