A spoonful of sugar and all the cheap sentiment and facile whimsy it represents are precisely what author P.L. Travers abhors in “Saving Mr. Banks,” a richly rendered, engrossing dramatization of Walt Disney’s efforts to adapt Travers’s novel “Mary Poppins” into one of his confectionery extravaganzas.
Played by Emma Thompson in a deliciously brittle turn, Travers emerges in the film as a humorless, imperious, unfailingly prim martinet, who when she arrives at the Disney studios in 1961 to collaborate on the script, insists that everyone — even Uncle Walt — address her as “Mrs. Travers.”
Reluctant to hand over Mary Poppins — never just “Mary,” please — Travers wages a two-week war of attrition on the screenwriter and composers assigned to bring the magical governess to the screen, wearing the boys down with constant criticisms and suggestions, all to keep her most cherished creation from becoming yet another casualty of Disney-fication, “cavorting, twinkling . . . careening toward a happy ending like a kamikaze.”
Thompson, her perfectly powdered face topped with a crown of angry curls, her mouth carefully drawn into a disapproving crimson grimace, tucks into such succulent dialogue with relish, dousing every line with an extra drop of vinegar for acidic good measure. The irresistible force to her unmovable object is Tom Hanks, whose Walt Disney is all soft-spoken Midwestern manipulation, unctuous and shrewd in equal parts.
Unimpressed by the balloons and Mickey Mouse plush toys that greet her at the Beverly Hills Hotel, “positively sickened” by the prospect of visiting Disneyland, bored by California (Los Angeles smells of “chlorine and sweat,” she announces upon her arrival at the airport), Travers is impervious to Disney’s cajoling and flattery. To paraphrase a flinty sister-under-the-skin, albeit from another era, the lady’s not for turning — on one of Disney’s carousels, or otherwise.
Even with Thompson’s delectably dyspeptic portrayal of Travers, she’d be a difficult protagonist to root for, were it not for the back story of “Mary Poppins” that “Saving Mr. Banks” is really about. What comes to light in the flashbacks that constitute their own period-piece-within-a-period-piece is that Poppins was a product of Travers’s own childhood in Australia, where she grew up as Helen Goff at the turn of the century, the favorite daughter of an alcoholic bank manager named Travers Goff (played in a sad-eyed, sympathetic turn by Colin Farrell).
Compulsively toggling back and forth between 1960s L.A. and a Goff family farmhouse mired in addiction and financial worries, “Saving Mr. Banks” doesn’t always straddle its stories and time periods with the utmost grace. But the film — which John Lee Hancock directed from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith — more than makes up for its occasionally unwieldy structure in telling a fascinating and ultimately deeply affecting story, along the way giving viewers tantalizing glimpses of the beloved 1964 movie musical, in both its creation and final form.
In addition to the evocative scenes of Travers’s simultaneously idyllic and horrifying childhood, the best moments of “Saving Mr. Banks” occur in the Disney rehearsal room, where screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) endure Travers’s constant stream of invective. When the Shermans try out a little ditty for Dick Van Dyke that rhymes “constable” with “responstable,” she immediately notes that “responstable” is not a word. “We made it up,” they tell her. “Well, un-make it up,” she snaps. (It’s revealing that the person Travers is kindest to, a chauffeur played by Paul Giamatti, is the film’s only fictional character.)
How on earth could this marriage be saved? In “Saving Mr. Banks,” it’s Disney himself who comes to the rescue, when the genial, mustached Hanks delivers a moving, if cloyingly self- righteous, speech about the role of storytelling (read: Hollywood) in healing primal wounds. It’s a self-serving moment, easily dismissed as studio-sanctioned mythmaking. Still, thanks to the particular story it tells and the marvelous actors channeling it, “Saving Mr. Banks” succeeds in proving Disney’s point. Catharsis is powerful medicine, whether it’s delivered by way of a mouse with big ears, a sharp-elbowed woman allowing bitterness to melt into long-buried grief or that dreaded, delightful spoonful of sugar.