The slick but moving “Saving Mr. Banks” transcends its corporate pedigree to become a great Disney movie about making a Disney movie.
A charming comedy-drama about the creation of the 1964 classic “Mary Poppins,” this new release shows how creativity and pain can be a recipe for magic. Fairy tales, we know, are made of dark stuff under the spoonfuls of sugar.
Not that P.L. Travers (an exquisite Emma Thompson), the author of the “Poppins” books, ever wanted her work to be a movie at all. When we see her, in the early 1960s, she’s resisted the overtures from mogul Walt Disney to make Poppins part of his Magic Kingdom.
She finally relents, due more to her financial hardship than the good-natured insistence of Disney (a great Tom Hanks). She flies from London to meet him, and at his studio, Mrs. Travers (as she insists on being called) fits in like a talking umbrella. She hates whimsy, abhors animation and rejects the music of the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak).
She has final say on the movie and is adamant “Poppins” have “gravitas.” We learn why in flashback. In Australia in the early 20th century, as a young girl, she and her family had to constantly relocate because her beloved father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), let alcoholism destroy him. Whimsy was Goff’s defense against his demons. It could not save him, though, or save his daughter from a tough childhood.
“Saving Mr. Banks,” though, is rescued by Farrell, and Hanks goes beyond mere imitation. The mustache and affability are right — despite a forced Missouri twang — and Hanks gets the essence of the man. When Kelly Marcel’s pearl-filled script has Disney gently reveal his own hurts and hopes, the actor’s warmth is irresistible.
Thompson is a hoot and a half. Dressing down the Shermans or demanding that the color red not be in the film, she’s tart, cranky and funny as hell. Mrs. Travers never really softens, despite “Poppins,” of course, being made and released almost exactly 50 years ago.
Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) adds a bit of cutesiness — listen carefully for “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho” as Mrs. Travers and her chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) cruise onto the lot — but the sometimes flinty emotions are honest.
Gorgeously shot and witty without being jokey, “Saving Mr. Banks” saves itself from cookie-cutter emotion with just the right sprinkling of reality.