It is often said that history is written by the victors, and that viewpoint goes a long way in explaining the slightly bitter taste left in my mouth by "Saving Mr. Banks," John Lee Hancock's ("The Blind Side") otherwise charming retelling of the behind-the-scenes battle to make Disney's "Mary Poppins." It's expected that liberties will be taken with the facts in any film that claims to be "based on a true story," but there's something vaguely distasteful about Disney setting out to tell its own triumphant story of gaining the rights to "Poppins" from its reluctant author.
The film begins just after P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) has finally agreed to fly from Britain to Los Angeles in order meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Their meeting is the culmination of Disney's 20-year pursuit of the rights to "Mary Poppins," and the author has finally relented because, frankly, she needs the money. She is invited to act as consultant on the film, meeting with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) as they negotiate with her exactly what changes they'll be allowed to make to her story. She's adamant that Mary Poppins not be turned into one of Disney's "silly cartoons."
Scenes of their planning sessions, in which Travers refuses to budge, making occasionally ridiculous demands (at one point insisting that the color red be removed from the movie completely), alternate with flashbacks to the author's childhood in Australia growing up with a doting, but deeply depressed, father (played with charm by Colin Farrell). Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith offer up the explanation (based on one hypothesis put forth in Valerie Lawson's biography of Travers, "Mary Poppins, She Wrote") that the author's reluctance to part with her creation was the result of a lack of closure in her relationship with her father, who was so inspirational to her writing. This clear-cut interpretation is symptomatic of the film's need to iron out the nuances of the story it sets out to tell. Though we know how things must inevitably turn out, giving up creative control of her work being a therapeutic process for Travers seems far too tidy. As is the way the film makes sure to end with the film's premiere, conveniently avoiding the fact that Travers was vocal in her displeasure with the finished product.
So many things about "Saving Mr. Banks" feel calculated, from cringe-inducing moments like Mickey Mouse himself taking Travers' hand to escort her into the premiere, right on down to the fact that the film's opening has been timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary Blu-ray release of "Mary Poppins."
This all sounds like I'm being overly hard on the film, which admittedly gets a lot of things right, namely Emma Thompson's wonderful performance as P.L. Travers. In her hands, the author is prickly, with a sharp tongue, but a sadness behind her eyes hints at a life that has known more than its share of disappointments. She captures the heartbreak and doubt that comes with giving up control of a work that's deeply personal. Hanks does a fine job as Walt Disney, alternately warm and exasperated. But while the script allows him moments that show Disney was first and foremost a businessman, like almost everything in the film, it doesn't probe any deeper.