Review: Emma Thompson brings real soul to true-life Disney drama ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

While “Saving Mr. Banks” is based on the actual events that led to the making of “Mary Poppins,” one of the most justifiably beloved films made during the entire time Walt Disney was the actual head of the studio that still bears his name, it is corporate myth-making on a large scale, and some of the choices that were made in telling the story make me uncomfortable. As a piece of entertainment, “Saving Mr. Banks” is very well-made and emotional, but as something that purports to be true, it is disturbing in the way it rewrites actual events.

P.L. Travers, creator of the character Mary Poppins, was a complicated figure by any standards, nearly as complicated as the most famous character she created, and her relationship with Walt Disney was contentious, to say the least. The script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith covers the broad strokes of their famous interaction and the film makes some very smart observations about the creative process. In particular, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Travers is filled with lovely grace notes, and I’m sure at least part of that is informed by the fact that Thompson is a formidable writer in her own right. She understands the highs and lows of being a writer, and she captures the emotional weather that most writers face in pretty much every moment she’s onscreen.

The difficult part of Walt Disney Studios telling this story is that they have a vested interest in making sure that Walt Disney, the icon, emerges from this as the hero of the story. I find Disney fascinating as a character, and there are numerous stories from his long creative and professional life that I think would work as films. Those stories have to be told honestly and unflinchingly, though, and there’s no way for that to happen at Disney, the company, at least not if “Saving Mr. Banks” is any indication. Tom Hanks does a very good job of playing the public face of Walt Disney, but I wonder if we’re supposed to believe that’s all there was to him, or if we’re okay never seeing the “real” Disney as well.

When I wrote about “Mary Poppins” as part of the Film Nerd 2.0 series, I was struck by how different the experience is watching the film as a parent. I think there is little or no chance anyone will ever be confused about the point of the film version of “Poppins” again thanks to the way this film carefully lays out the themes of the script as we gradually watch the process unfold. As Disney, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman), and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak) all work to turn the material from her books into the film, they come to the realizations about the story they’re telling in an organic way, surprising themselves with what they discover. That’s my favorite material in the film, and particular credit should be given to Novak and Schwartzman for the way they play the Shermans. The closest the film comes to showing any real friction happens between Robert Sherman and Travers, and I wish Novak had been given room to be even more prickly. As it is, Travers gets the majority of the film’s best lines, and she is a hurricane that blows over everyone else.

As the film shows us the process between Travers and the rest of the filmmaking team, it also flashes back to her childhood and her memories of her father, Robert Goff Travers (Colin Farrell), and it makes the case for how her life was folded almost entirely into her art. I don’t know enough about her childhood to judge how accurate the entire portrayal is here, but there is a neatness to the way it all lines up that almost plays like the opening sequence in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” I’m not sure that in real life, it’s as simple as you fall in a tub full of snakes, you get a phobia for life. We get explanations and origins for almost everything in “Mary Poppins,” and it starts to feel like a stretch at a certain point. I am torn on the portrayal of her father. I think there’s some really interesting work he does where we see both his dreamy, caring side and his deeply dysfunctional inability to be a responsible adult. When he’s cultivating the imagination of Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), the seven-year-old version of P.L. Travers, he seems like a hell of a guy, but as a functioning grown-up, he’s a catastrophe. Ruth Wilson, last seen in this summer’s “The Lone Ranger,” plays her mother, and there’s one particularly dramatic sequence involving Wilson’s character that is a cheat, a real beat that happened at a very, very different point in time. Moving it to where the film has it is a smart dramatic move, but as with most of the changes in “Saving Mr. Banks,” what it does makes a fairly major psychological difference in terms of the real people being depicted.

There is a warm confidence to the film, and I think it might be John Lee Hancock’s best work. He punctuates the film with some strong choices as a director, including a shot that may make the most beautiful use of LA’s palm trees in quite a while. He is working handcuffed, though, because there’s no way he could have been even a little more edgy or rough in his handling of Disney as a person. It seems like the film works overtime to make it feel like Disney and Travers had a personal encounter that was the key to finally getting the film made, but everything I’ve read suggests otherwise. Disney even made sure he wasn’t in town when Travers first showed up to work on the script because he didn’t want to face her. More importantly, the film makes it look like they finally reached a place where they respected each other equally, but that’s not the way Travers told the story. There is a legendary moment that supposedly took place during the film’s premiere that is rewritten and blunted considerably in the way it’s told here, and the choice seems like its emblematic of the film’s issues. The film actually features a few moments where P.L. Travers complains about all of her problems with Disney’s work, and one of the most interesting things about the film is how many of her complaints actually seem to apply to this treatment of her own story.

It may sound like I’m just hammering the movie, but it did move me, and I do think it’s well-made and well-performed. It is going to work like gangbusters for mainstream audiences, and I think it’s one of the loveliest performances that Thompson has given in a long while. In the end, though, this is as “true” a story as any TV episode where Walt Disney would share a scene with Tinker Bell or Mickey Mouse, and it takes a genuinely intriguing behind-the-scenes story and neuters some of the roughest edges to make it a more palatable infomercial for the special 50th Anniversary “Mary Poppins” Blu-ray that will no doubt fly off the shelves this December.

“Saving Mr. Banks” opens in limited release on December 13, then goes wide on December 20, 2013.