Saving Mr. Banks: Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson Celebrate the Studio System

Saving Mr. Banks

Opens Fri., Dec. 13 at Pacific Place. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes.

Most critics hated last year’s Hitchcock for its irreverent treatment of the iconic director (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins). How dare you tarnish this giant of world cinema!?! But consider the alternative: Here we have congenial Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, another Hollywood legend, who’s wooing prickly author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to authorize his studio’s planned musical Mary Poppins. Written by Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel, the script for Saving Mr. Banks was long-coveted in development. Then Disney bought it—possibly, some whispered, to kill a project potentially unflattering to Uncle Walt and his empire.

None should’ve worried about that. Disney is depicted as a schemer and cajoler, a good-natured man with an iron will, but he wears his despotism lightly. “Call me Walt,” he keeps insisting—yet another irritant to Travers, sulkily visiting L.A. to approve the project (or not, as she continually threatens). A self-made woman who bolted Australia to refashion herself as a starchy, acerbic Englishwoman, Mrs. Travers—as she imperiously commands informal Americans call her—both needs the cash and despises her need. Her Mary Poppins books sold well during the ’30s and ’40s, but she’s blocked and broke by 1961. She turned down Disney’s offer 20 years before and is humiliated to be considering it now.

There’s enough conflict here for a good comedy of manners during the sunset of the studio system, a fish-out-of-water industry satire with a bossy spinster beginning to question her spinsterhood in hedonistic, sunny L.A. However, the script—competently directed by John Lee Hancock—is too timid to take many liberties in 1961, preferring instead to intercut the parallel story of Travers’ difficult girlhood in 1906 Australia. Little “Ginty,” so in thrall to the confabulations of her charismatic father (a charming yet vulnerable Colin Farrell), must inevitably be wounded in childhood. Just as inevitably, 50 years later, that wound must be healed—with music, laughter, and a generous heaping of Disney stardust. As Walt and company sweetened and simplified several Poppins books into one hit movie, Travers’ rocky biography has been ironed out here.

“She doesn’t sugarcoat the darkness of the world,” Travers says of her heroine, and there are glimpses of that darkness back in Australia (alcoholism, tuberculosis, marital strife, etc.). The original Mary Poppins novels were set during the Great Depression, with the alarming prospect of downward mobility for the Banks family (led by an unhappy banker, as was Travers’ father). Disney’s film pushed the story back to safer pre-WWI days, and Saving Mr. Banks similarly seems somewhat unmoored from its Mad Men, pre-Beatles era. When Travers longingly eyes the hotel bar, we wonder what she wants: booze, men, women, or simply companionship? Disney is equally sexless and square; he seems to exist only at his studio and theme park. (Coincidentally, the Coen brothers’ new Inside Llewyn Davis is also set in ’61, though the distance between the two films feels like a century.)

Hanks and Thompson bring considerable craft and goodwill to their roles, and we can laugh at their clash with the foreknowledge that Disney will prevail. (Mary Poppins was released in ’64 and won five Oscars.) Travers is on the wrong side of history and industry, so it’s mainly a question of how and when she’ll be figuratively seduced. In this very self-validating Hollywood product, the system will prevail over the genius. “We instill hope,” says Disney. Travers is too cowed to correct him: Hollywood sells hope. And happy endings.

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