A promising premise and an entertaining central performance buoy this movie. But an inefficiently split narrative and an overload of sugar keep a potentially fascinating story from taking hold.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the film is an old-fashioned movie about an old-fashioned movie. It opens in 1960s England, where author Pamela Travers, having long rejected Walt Disney’s offers to adapt “Mary Poppins” into a film, decides, for financial reasons, to visit the studio mogul to discuss such a project.
In Hollywood, a battle of wills ensues. The prim, prickly Travers tells her folksy but machinating host that he cannot turn her magical nanny into one of his “silly cartoons.” During sessions with Disney’s creative team, Travers proves herself a handful as she objects to everything from the casting of Dick Van Dyke to the presence of the color red onscreen.
Travers eventually warms to the “frivolous” musical numbers composed by the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak), but when learning that Disney intends — against her emphatically stated wishes — to include animation in the film, she bails. Determined to get her signature on the deal, Disney appeals to Travers on an emotional level.
His plea relates to Travers’ traumatic Australian childhood, which, as revealed in flashbacks, included an irresponsible alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).
The film scores its share of entertainment points. It contains fun and familiar tidbits about a well-known movie and a famous formidable force behind it.
Thompson is a hoot as the starchy, persnickety Travers. (Will a passenger’s young child “be a nuisance?” she asks on the flight.) But overall, this film is too sugary and, often, downright false to achieve credibility or grip.
The real-life Travers disliked Disney’s movie so much that she forbade anyone associated with it from taking part in a theatrical version of “Mary Poppins.” That’s an interesting story. In this version, which comes from Walt Disney Studios, we have Travers moved to tears at the premiere, among other dramatic-license abuses.
Additionally, Hancock isn’t an edgy or original director. His frequent shifting between past and present weakens the hold of the primary story.
Rather than give Thompson a chance to show what’s inside the surely complicated Travers, he uses soapy Australian flashbacks to convey her demons.
Hanks, playing basically the Uncle Walt seen on TV, and Paul Giamatti, playing a clearly fabricated friendly chauffeur, both deserve better.
Saving Mr. Banks
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti and Colin Farrell
Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Running time 2 hours, 5 minutes Rated PG-13