In Saving Mr. Banks, a jejune and overstuffed holiday trifle from Walt Disney Pictures, John Lee Hancock presents a repetitious battle of wits and egos between P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and the Disney “magic makers” hired to bring the persnickety author’s Mary Poppins to the silver screen. You see, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) promised his daughters he would wave his corporate wand and create a movie version of Travers’s beloved no-nonsense nanny, but for over a decade the author kept the film rights from what she perceived to be Walt’s cloying sensibilities.
The film picks up at the start of this tug of war in 1961 when, upon her agent’s insistence, Travers begrudgingly succumbed to the idea of allowing Walt to adapt Mary Poppins, the royalties from which were now dwindling. Without the agreement fully signed, Travers had one major stipulation: that she would have full control over the page-to-realization process in pre-production. Touching down in Los Angeles, the sourpuss-faced author is greeted by a Disney-sponsored chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) holding a board that reads, “Walt Disney presents…P.L. Travers.” With a quick scoff, the incorrigible Travers sarcastically utters, “He does, does he?” With Saving Mr. Banks, however, the joke ends up being on Travers, who has now become the sanded-down caricature whose story drives the narrative of a treacly Mouse House vehicle.
On the surface, the film recalls Travers’s obstinance and the creative power struggle between her and the Disney team at the core of the Robert Stevenson-helmed Marry Poppins, yet Saving Mr. Banks is blueprinted as a peripatetic dual narrative, bouncing back and forth as it does between the backlot handwringing at Disney Studios in the early 1960s and flashbacks to Travers’s childhood in Australia. Travers grew up charmed by the imaginative attention of her banker father (Colin Farrell), who moved his family from an idyllic suburban manse to a calm little house on the Outback, where young Travers’s mother (Ruth Wilson) grew alienated from her husband as he increasingly became dependent on alcohol. And somewhere within these memories lies the kernel that led Travers to write her enchanted Mary Poppins.
Countless scenes depict Travers flinging insults and shutting down every idea that Disney’s writers and lyricists put forth: She claims that “singing is frivolous,” that she hates animation, and that the color red is forbidden to appear anywhere in the film. These scenes are offset by the increasingly weighty and melodramatic flashbacks, which serve to reveal Travers’s psychological baggage, as well as humanize a figure who’s mostly reduced, and risibly so, to a crotchety spinster. After Walt and Travers spar over the character of Mr. Banks and whether or not he requires a moustache, the film cuts to the young Travers observing her father shave as he remarks, “A man must shave to spare his daughter’s cheeks.” And that’s just one of many obnoxiously on-the-nose juxtapositions meant to illuminate how Daddy’s little girl would one day become a stick in the mud.
Falsely billed as a look behind the magic of how a beloved character was turbulently brought to screen, Saving Mr. Banks is more interested in demystifying the inspiration for Mary Poppins. It’s a novel twist on the backstory, and as the film slumps toward its denouement, it becomes less about Travers’s creative differences with Walt and more about her internal, disillusioning struggle with her past. But the filmmakers defang the attempts at psychoanalytic scrutiny at almost every turn. It refuses to give the characters any sort of edge, serving up a well-worn, pop-psychological interpretation of Travers’s daddy issues while only peripherally confronting Walt’s eagerness to please at any cost. Nonetheless, as the secrets of Travers’s past are unlocked and the shrew is tamed, the film becomes a full-blown saccharine exercise in navel-gazing Disney feel-goodery, aggrandizing Walt’s triumph over Travers’s complicated emotional attachment to her novel.
There’s a running gag in which Walt’s assistant keeps filling every meeting with opulent sweets, with Travers constantly rebuffing her. “One must not eat cake for every meal,” she snips at her at one point. Saving Mr. Banks, however, is most eager to present the audience with heaping spoonfuls of sugar. For all its determination to depict Travers as a highfalutin pain in the ass, its turn-on-a-dime catharsis strikes a specious and unearned tone; before long, she’s cuddling with a Mickey Mouse doll, and in spite of Thompson’s perpetual scowling, her character’s emotional arc never feels in doubt. Throughout, the audience simply bides its time until the magic of Disney and Walt’s persuasive final monologue finally unleashes Travers’s generosity. Ultimately, the film is a tale of memory and redemption that does little to linger in the mind and even less to decry Travers’s claim that Disney turns everything it touches into schmaltz.