In the fascinating story behind Saving Mr. Banks, truths — and not just the convenient and shiny kind — lurk beneath and behind fictions, with circuitous routes between the two. The primary and driving story was fairly well known, and will be evermore thus with the release of this high-profile Disney movie: Walt Disney, obsessed with adapting the British children’s novel Mary Poppins for the screen, partly under the influence of his children, wooed and pursued its stubborn author, P.L. Travers, for some 20 years before she begrudgingly agreed to go to Hollywood (well, Burbank) and see about making a movie work.
It eventually did, and it worked wonders, as a golden egg for Disney and as a family film we know and love — even if we don’t fully understand the backstory. Banks is the saga of a classic that almost never existed onscreen. Emma Thompson plays Travers, who shows up for the Disney-fying of her novel and immediately rejects the superficial enterprise, dreaded moments of animation, and giddy break-into-song gestures. (Poppins’s songwriters, the Sherman brothers, play an interesting role in this “anatomy of a pop cultural classic” plotline).
As a film, Saving Mr. Banks moves along at a friendly clip, blending the 1961 Burbank-ian drama behind the creation of the movie with flashbacks and haunting childhood memories from Travers’s rugged childhood in Australia. But something is all too tidy and, well, Disney-esque to give this film a true, deeper aura of empathy. Tom Hanks, back to his yeoman tricks after going deeper in Captain Phillips, is just about right as Disney, the man who made and was made by the Mouse, a gee-wizard from the Midwest with a penchant for wielding his power and getting his way. Thompson is ideal as the tough-skinned, American-phobic British writer, an author who is overly protective of her character, as well as the secret personal backdrop — a private truth behind the fiction — of the Mary Poppins saga and cast of characters.
Actually, the Disney-Poppins-Travers plot was thicker than this Disney-approved account lets on: Travers was ultimately put off by the film’s syrupy and sentimentalizing ways, and for many years shunned efforts to make it a Broadway musical. (Eventually, she signed on for a musical theater version created in England.) Spoonfuls of sugar, salt, and historically charged artistic in-fighting make Saving Mr. Banks an intriguing if overly slick operation. Travers might not have approved of this message.