An adult daughter of an alcoholic meets the granddaddy of all inner-child-enablers in “Saving Mr. Banks,” a whimsical, moving and occasionally insightful tale of author P.L. Travers clashing with Walt Disney over the mogul’s decades-long effort to bring her beloved novel “Mary Poppins” to the big screen.
Even when “Mr. Banks” gets brazenly manipulative, within parameters Walt himself would have approved, it gleefully assaults both the heart and the pleasure center. Perhaps most surprisingly, what could have merely been a studio’s love letter to itself — timed, not coincidentally, for the upcoming 50th anniversary of “Mary Poppins” — winds up being a meditation on the power that art has for artists as a way to exorcise the past.
The film begins in 1961, with Travers (Emma Thompson) running out of money and finally agreeing to travel from London to Los Angeles to meet with Disney (Tom Hanks), who has spent the last 20 years trying to convince her to let him film her book. Even with the promise of script approval, she’s been hesitant to sign off out of fear that he will make her creation too cheery and sparkly.
Those two adjectives hardly apply to the brusque Travers, who immediately condescends to or outright insults everyone who crosses her path at the studio, from screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) to legendary songwriters Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman). She even tells Disney that she doesn’t want Mary Poppins to become “one of your silly cartoons,” ignoring the shocked and hurt look on his face.
The Burbank sunshine prompts flashbacks to her own early life; while she presents herself as veddy British, Travers actually grew up in Australia as young Helen Goff (Annie Buckley), with a father (Colin Farrell) who was a banker, a charmer, a dreamer — and a drinker. We see how this charismatic wreck created a storyteller and inspired the unhappy banker Mr. Banks, and for the grown-up Travers, making a “Mary Poppins” movie can only work if it vindicates the character and, ultimately, her father.
It’s up to Disney himself, who knows a thing or two about papering over childhood sadness with fantasias and magic kingdoms, to coax the hesitant author into accepting her own happy ending. Hearing the Shermans sing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” doesn’t hurt, either.
Working from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “The Rookie”) luxuriates in the period detail of early-’60s Disney-ana, from the studio itself (lucky for the production, the buildings have been scrupulously maintained and unchanged for 70 years or so) to Disneyland, but his real skill lies in coasting over the screenplay’s more shameless moments.
For instance, there’s a conversation between Travers and her kindly studio driver about his disabled daughter that could have been horrendously treacly in the wrong hands, but Emma Thompson and Paul Giamatti strip the scene down and find the poignancy in it.
The performances are terrific all around. It seems at first as though Hanks is merely twinkly stunt-casting, but his big final speech about the power of storytelling provides one of the film’s most affecting moments. (He also rides the Disneyland carousel like a politician, down to the “I see you!” move popularized on “Veep.” But hey, it is his kingdom, after all.) With “Saving Mr. Banks” and “Captain Phillips,” Hanks has two of the year’s strongest acting turns under his belt.
It’s Thompson’s show all the way, of course. Audio recordings of the real-life Travers under the closing credits show that the actress has done a superb job of capturing the writer’s clipped tone and manner, even if the photographs of the real author suggest that she looks less like the star of “Sense and Sensibility” and more like Hermione Gingold.
The flashbacks are powerful, but the payoff comes from watching Thompson as the grown-up still battling the ghosts of her past. And one of the take-away moments of “Saving Mr. Banks” comes from the simple act of watching Travers watch the screen version of “Mary Poppins” for the first time — her expression alternates between joy and befuddlement (Travers apparently never cared for Dick Van Dyke or animated penguins), all wrapped up in an emotional breakthrough.
(Not that “Saving Mr. Banks” should be taken as historical gospel, since many accounts claim that Travers ended her Hollywood experience none too taken with either Mr. Disney or his movie.)
Farrell perfectly conveys both the charisma and the failings of this turn-of-the-century Irishman, and Ruth Wilson is fragile and devastating as his put-upon wife. (Rachel Griffiths shows up as young Helen’s no-nonsense, umbrella-carrying aunt who clearly inspired the chore-minded flying nanny.)
“Saving Mr. Banks” reminds us of why we watch movies, yes, but it also provides insight into why people make them, suggesting that in some cases, the creators enjoy an even bigger catharsis than their audiences.