The relentlessly bright biographical tale Saving Mr. Banks offers a prime example of history written by the victors. Walt Disney Pictures dramatizes a footnote from the making of Mary Poppins. In 1961, the movie mogul and TV host pulled out all the stops to persuade reluctant author P.L. Travers to allow Disney to turn her practically perfect English nanny into a sugar-spooning big-screen vehicle.
Saving Mr. Banks showers affection on its characters and casts the most likable actors imaginable, with Tom Hanks making an irrepressible Disney and Emma Thompson a wryly disapproving Ms. Travers (she hates to be called "Pamela"). Unfortunately, under the direction of John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks proves to be a one-note affair that's nearly all sugar, no medicine.
The cash-strapped Travers loathes treacly entertainment, but grants Disney two weeks to persuade her to give up the rights to Mary Poppins. In the early scenes of her arrival in Hollywood, Thompson conveys hilarious disdain at the omnipresent Mickey Mouse branding, which includes a hotel room stuffed with plush toys. At one point she looks at a Winnie the Pooh and sighs, "Poor A.A. Milne."
Saving Mr. Banks' most charming scenes occur in a studio lot rehearsal room, as screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the composer/lyricists the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak in his best screen role) belt out early drafts of future classics like "Chim Chim Cheree." The sequences convey the present-at-the-creation excitement that you'd expect, but Travers proves a hard sell, drawing the line at animation. Anyone who remembers Dick Van Dyke dancing with penguins anticipates an explosion to come.
The film crosscuts between Travers' Los Angeles trip and her difficult childhood in rural Australia, where her beloved father (Colin Farrell) was both a charming dreamer and a self-destructive alcoholic. The script circles an intriguing idea of how artists can redeem their past unhappiness through their work, and at one point a Sherman Brothers song bleeds into a memory. But Banks can't just show pleasant memories, it has to present slow-motion flashbacks of father and daughter riding on horseback through golden fields. Rachel Griffiths goes weirdly underused as a relative who may have been Mary Poppins' real-life analogue.
Saving Mr. Banks doesn't want to admit that Travers may have had a point, and that the 1964 Mary Poppins can be both an Oscar-winning family film and a faithless adaptation of the author's vision. It's too much to expect that a Disney film would actually criticize the man who made the company, so all the humor that involves Hanks resembles the kind of jokes about your boss at an office party that are really barely disguised compliments. It's to Thompson's credit that she makes Travers likable and sympathetic, given that the film shows her so much ambivalence. Rather than dramatize a genuine clash of creative sensibilities, Saving Mr. Banks conveys impatience with the stuffy British lady who won't get with the program.