This telling of the making of Disney's live-action (mostly) feature MARY POPPINS is a whole lot of fun; there's really no denying it or yourself. If your mission is to be entertained by SAVING MR. BANKS, rest assured you will be and you can stop reading here. But if you want to have any sense of history and truth telling, there's some of that here, but everything feels so bloated and propped up that a great deal of it feels phony, even when it's the truth.
At the end of the film, director John Lee Hancock does something extraordinary: he lets us listen to an actual tape recording of the real "Mary Poppins" author, P.L. Travers (played in the film by Emma Thompson, worth seeing in pretty much all things), in a meeting with the film's songwriters, Robert and Richard Sherman, as well as Don DaGradi, the screenwriter of MARY POPPINS. It's established in the film that Travers insisted on having all of the meetings recorded for legal purposes, but here it is—actual audio proof that she was as nitpicky and difficult as the legends would have us believe. It's clear she never wanted this film to happen, and she fought with the creative team and Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks, in full carnival barker mode) over every line of dialogue, stage director, casting choice (except Julie Andrews; her she liked), and song inclusion.
But here's the thing: not all of SAVING MR. BANKS occurs in that room, and having those tapes makes the fact that those scenes are the best the film has to offer make sense, and why things that happen outside that office feel so much less authentic, even if they're true to history. Blessedly, Thompson's performance keeps us grounded. Sure, Travers was a curmudgeon and overly protective of her work, but she also didn't like Disney thinking he could push her around or force her to compromise on this deeply personal work by throwing money, compliments or sentimentality her way. She is clearly unmoved by Uncle Walt's tale of promising his daughters that he would make a film version of their favorite book in his lifetime. I was never quite sure why Travers eventually agreed to travel to LA after years of badgering by Disney. Most likely, it was to sabotage the production entirely, but she clearly grew to love the process (and even the music, which she initially dismisses en masse).
There are large portions of the film that deal with what are the true reasons Travers was so protective of these characters. Shown in almost magical-realism-style flashbacks, we see Travers as a young girl (real name Georgia Goff) with her parents, Travers and Margaret Goff (Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson, respectively), in a seemingly blissful existence, until we realize that her father is a completely undependable, raging alcoholic, who loves his family but not enough to stop drinking. Still, the children love him without question and blame their mother when things go wrong or daddy is gone for days. When their father is in particularly poor health, "Aunt Ellie" (Rachel Griffiths) shows up with her cures, and not surprisingly, the woman bares a strange resemblance to a certain umbrella-wielding British nanny. As the true origins of "Mary Poppins" begin to emerge from Travers' memory, we start to root for her to see her version of this story told properly, with maybe a bit less of that old Disney magic sprinkled in.
But that doesn't make these epic battles any less entertaining, as she rebukes DaGradi (played by Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). About the only American she has any stomach for is her polite, compassionate driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti—and for those counting, this is the seventh film featuring Giamatti in body or voice in 2013).
Director Hancock doesn't know the meaning of the phrase "too much sentimentality." He squeezed as much of it as he could in films such as THE BLIND SIDE, THE ROOKIE, and even THE ALAMO, and they all suffered because of it, sometime enough to ruin the film. With SAVING MR. BANKS, he has actors smart enough to know when to dial it back... most of the time. In an attempt that seems to mirror Walt Disney's desperation to get Travers back on track, he travels to England after she has left Los Angeles without signing away the rights to her material. And in one brief scene, he psychoanalyzes the deeper meanings of her book and gets her to sign—just like that. I don't think I'm ruining the suspense of how this ends since the film has existed for about 50 years. And even if that sequence happens exactly how it's depicted by screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, it couldn't feel more bogus in its execution, and that's a problem that crops up throughout the film.
The other, perhaps more troubling thing is that, in the end, we're not sure the right side won. Did a giant corporation pressure an artist attempting to stay pure to finally sell out? Say it ain't so! But that's kind of what happened. And yes, MARY POPPINS is a wonderful film, but it's not the book, and Travers never liked the finished product.
Yet for all its flaws, I'm still recommending the film. The performances are what finally sold me on the damn thing. Thompson never softens as the abrasive Travers, and the way she micro-scrutinizes everything from the script to people's manners is fantastic. As I mentioned, the film's best moments are in the writers' room, and higher comedy you may not find in too many places this year. And not surprisingly, Hanks' version of Walt Disney is supremely winning. If we can see him manipulating Travers, it's because Hanks wants us to peek behind the curtain of Disney's charm. He could be as ruthless a negotiator as he was a creative genius, and it's nicely packaged here.
The reality of the making of MARY POPPINS was probably a bit more nasty and cutthroat, but this is a Disney film featuring America's most beloved actor playing Walt Disney; I'm pretty sure character assassination was never in any draft of this script. But what's here ranges from very good to curiosity at best. I found myself tuning out during the psychobabble portions of the film, but the rest tends to work, some of it quite well. And for that reason SAVING MR. BANKS gets a marginal recommendation.