One problem with “Saving Mr. Banks”, which tells the story of Mary Poppins’ journey from book to big screen and more specifically the volatile relationship between Walt Disney and British author P.L. Travers during her two weeks at the studio negotiating the script in 1961, is the fact that it’s a Disney production. I have no problem with Disney; in fact, the animated feature “Frozen” was one of my favorite films of the year. I’ll even be taking my daughter down to Disney World just as soon as she’s old enough to endure the sensory overload. But expecting anything different than a saintly, uncomplicated version of Walt Disney, who’s played in the film by Tom Hanks, would simply be unrealistic. It’s a Disney picture.
Hanks, who does the stand-up guy better than just about anybody I can think of, portrays the media mogul as I’m sure many people imagined him (including me); kind, comforting, generous and righteous. While that may all be an accurate assessment of the man to some degree, it certainly can’t be a complete one; there’s not a moment in “Saving Mr. Banks” in which the character is forced to abandon his avuncular charms to get what he wants. Even when he’s being assertive, he’s a such a sweetheart that you want to give him a hug and then sing a duet.
So you might wonder how he manages to get his way with the rigid, America-hating P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), who seems impervious to Disney’s magic fairy dust. She’s assertive, too, but is established mainly as an insufferable pain in the ass, making ridiculous demands if only to make things more difficult for others. She pays very few people the common courtesy of saying “hello” or “thank you” and would sooner throw pears into the pool at her hotel than simply drop them in the trash (more on that later). The only person she seems to tolerate is a good-natured chauffeur (played by Paul Giamatti), probably because in turn, he’s the only one who can tolerate her.
For a good portion of the film, Travers, who only entertains the idea of selling “Poppins” because she’s faced with imminent bankruptcy (having not written a book in some time) and Disney, who’s determined to fulfill a promise that he’d made to his daughters some twenty years earlier, are like oil and water. The buttoned-up, intellectual Brit (who repeatedly insists on being addressed as Mrs. Travers and makes abundantly clear her disgust with Los Angeles, the theme park and just about everything down to actor Dick Van Dyke – did I mention that she hates Americans?), and the easy-going, larger-than-life, mustached father of Mickey Mouse (who seems unrealistically patient), squabble over the iconic nanny as Disney attempts to secure the rights to “Mary Poppins” pending Travers’ approval of the script. At first, she refuses to let him make a musical out of her precious book, and absolutely no animation, she stipulates inflexibly (of course, if you’ve seen “Mary Poppins”, you know how that turned out). He occasionally makes some pretty vanilla remarks about her (“The woman’s a conundrum!”, he laments), but it’s not quite the knock-down, drag-out that it might have been in reality.
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