Director John Lee Hancock's “Saving Mr. Banks” should not be mistaken for an indisputable historical document — this heartfelt and often moving story about creativity, commerce and the rough cuts from childhood that never fully heal isn't a completely factual account of the making of “Mary Poppins.”
But “Banks” feels emotionally honest, so its small compromises for the sake of dramatic weight feel justified and will only bother people who can quote chapter and verse on the tense relationship between Walt Disney and “Poppins” author P.L. Travers.
Disney is played by Tom Hanks with a keen understanding of both the gentle, smiling Walt Disney from television and the determined industrialist and empire builder. These were not discrete segments of his personality, but the toughness Disney earned during his pre-Mickey Mouse years of false starts and disappointments comes through in Hanks' performance. His battle to make “Mary Poppins” was born out of a promise to his daughter, and “Saving Mr. Banks” covers the last three years of a two-decade quest to keep his word.
It took that long because Travers, played with proper and exacting prickliness by Emma Thompson, did not want her novels adapted at all, much less by Disney. She despised his aesthetic, did not think Mary Poppins should sing, could not abide animation in any amount. By the time Disney flies her to Los Angeles to meet with the creative team — screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) — she is in full combat mode, shooting down each idea as it is presented.
Travers had her reasons. The character of Mr. Banks, who was eventually played by David Tomlinson in the Disney version, was based largely on the author's father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), an Australian banker whose chronic alcoholism often fueled a fantastical whimsy that made his daughter (played at age 7 by Annie Rose Buckley) fiercely loyal. She wants to pay proper tribute to the man she loved, and her vision clashes with Disney's strong ideas about who Banks should be.
Fans of the Oscar-winning 1964 version of “Mary Poppins” will only see fleeting glimpses of the actual film, but the creative process depicted in “Saving Mr. Banks” shows how beloved songs such as “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)” emerged from the Sherman brothers' legendary talents. Thompson is wonderful and precise in portraying the artfully obstinate Travers — much of the film depends on both believing her power to derail a classic and understanding why she would do it. The real Travers was even less malleable than the one Thompson plays, and that's where “Banks” takes its liberties.
Naturally, “Saving Mr. Banks” rises or falls on whether viewers buy Hanks as Disney. They will: He might not look entirely like the man behind the mouse, but Hanks seems to understand the man's ideals, ambitions and magnetic appeal to a public that came to believe in his Magic Kingdom. This is a story about two people with iron wills. History shows how it shook out, but “Saving Mr. Banks” succeeds because the battle itself is almost as fascinating as the outcome.
— George Lang