The late Walt Disney was no stranger to the public eye. As the regular host of many of his company’s TV shows, Disney became an avuncular presence in America’s living rooms: He was the super nice neighbor, the friendly guy at the corner store, as well as the man who helped sell America on dreams.
In the new movie — Saving Mr. Banks — Disney is played by Tom Hanks, who tries hard to be as Disneyesque as possible. But it’s not really Uncle Walt who occupies the center of a movie about how author P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins became a Disney classic.
That spot belongs to Travers, played with a major helping of disdain by Emma Thompson.
PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
From the start, Thompson’s Travers expressed disbelief and mistrust about Disney’s motives. She very much doubted that Hollywood would do justice to her story.
But Travers also needed money, and her agent pushed her toward Disney, warning her that she might lose her London home if she didn’t make a deal.
Travers agreed, but insisted on having final script approval. She also ruled out the inclusion of any animation. (Here, Disney bested her: He managed to get a chorus of animated penguins into the movie, which starred Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews.)
Disney and Travers couldn’t have been more different. True to his folksy ways and easy informality, Disney insisted on calling Pamela Lyndon Travers by the diminutive, “Pam.” Travers was appalled. She insisted that Disney call her Mrs. Travers.
Even with Thompson expressing Travers’s distaste for all things Disney, the screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith comes off as a somewhat bland and sanitized version of Hollywood history. Disney, who died of lung cancer, tried to hide his addiction to cigarettes from the public. The film acknowledges Disney’s nicotine cravings, but not much more.
The movie is at once a rudimentary guide to the making of a much-beloved family movie and a look at Travers’ difficult early life in the Australian outback.
Her charming father (a fine Colin Farrell) was a hopeless alcoholic: Her mother (Ruth Wilson) became his unlucky wife. Annie Rose Buckley plays the younger Travers in flashbacks that alternate — often in ungainly fashion — with the story of Disney’s fitful attempt to bring Mary Poppins to the screen, a goal he accomplished in 1964.
If there’s any compelling reason to see this movie, Thompson supplies it. She’s flinty and aloof as Travers, although she she does thaw by the end, at least a litte. Travers eventually overcomes some of her resistance to the cuddly Disney machine, partly because she strikes up a friendship with her Disney-supplied chauffeur (Paul Giamatti). He has a disabled daughter who loves Travers’s books.
Travers objected when Disney proposed turning her story into a musical, so it’s no surprise that she exasperated Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), the brothers hired by Disney to write the Mary Poppins’ score.
Despite Thompson’s performance and a bit of behind-the-scenes allure, Saving Mr. Banks — directed by John Lee Hooker (The Blind Side) — is only intermittently entertaining and not entirely devoid of that once inevitable hallmark of many Disney efforts: sentiment.
Those who’ve been hankering to know exactly how Chim Chim Cher-ee entered the big-screen musical vocabulary will find out — along with a variety of other things that rank low on the scale of cosmic importance, but — then again — what doesn’t? I watched. I shrugged.