“Saving Mr. Banks” may be the most entertaining two hours of corporate branding you’ll ever see.
The film, directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, tells the story of “Mary Poppins” from the other side of the screen, in the battle of wills between the lady who wrote the book — the veddy British P.L. Travers, played (deliciously) by Emma Thompson — and the all-American pop visionary who made the movie, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). That 1964 film remains one of the stranger musicals to ever come out of the Mouse House, and apparently there was even more drama involved in its making. Reluctantly visiting Los Angeles for story conferences with Disney’s creative team, Travers stiffened her spine against any sign of “Disneyfication.” No songs, thank you, and definitely no animation. We know how that turned out.
On one level, then, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a drama about the joys of selling out — or at least the inevitability — and because the movie’s a Disney production, there’s little irony intended. And yet the film is extremely canny and often a great deal of fun, primarily in the scenes in which Travers locks horns with the Disney-ites. They’re all played by smart, sharp actors who keep their claws retracted: Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman. Paul Giamatti takes the surprisingly small role of Travers’s chauffeur, Ralph, as if only an actor this witty could sell you on the character’s blandly chipper optimism. If you don’t buy Hanks as Walt Disney for a second — I didn’t — you’re happy, as always, to buy him as Tom Hanks.
The film plays a tricky double game, acknowledging the ways American entertainment companies can suck the soulful eccentricity out of the properties they buy while insisting that it’s for their own good. When Travers is installed at the Beverly Hills Hotel in a room filled to the ceiling with fruit baskets and plush Disney toys, we’re meant to comically recoil with her; when she picks up a Disney Winnie the Pooh doll and murmurs, “Poor A. A. Milne,” we sympathize. The delight of Thompson’s performance is in the civilized astonishment with which she meets every break in protocol, from the sunny California strangers who call her “Pam” to the casting of “your Mr. Van Dyke” as a London chimney sweep. She’s here to give our culture a proper spanking.
Ah, but she’s repressing her tragic back story, you see. “Saving Mr. Banks” regularly flashes back to a parallel narrative of the writer’s childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia, where the young Helen Goff (Annie Rose Buckley, who’s very good) contends with a beloved alcoholic father (Colin Farrell, ditto) and a despairing mother (Ruth Wilson). This, it’s implied, is why the grown Helen, pen name Travers, is such a prim adult (as are all children who have to care for childish parents). At the same time, this second plotline provides pop-psychology “clues” to “Mary Poppins” itself, down to an appearance by Rachel Griffiths (“Six Feet Under”) as a no-nonsense aunt with a parrot-head umbrella.
As the title indicates, “Saving Mr. Banks” is really about children and parents, and about how we use art to make sense of a world that doesn’t play fair. And because it’s a Hollywood movie from a major corporation looking fondly at itself, it concludes that, while art may heal our psychic wounds, craftsmanship and commerce heal them better. It’s only a matter of time before Travers comes over to the sunny side of the street, and Thompson’s good enough to almost get you to believe it, tapping her toe and dancing to the Shermans’ upbeat melodies and — in a scene that would probably send the real Travers shrieking back to England — having a good cathartic cry in the dark of a movie theater.
By then, Hanks’s Disney has revealed his own daddy issues and got off a climactic monologue about his view of the meaning of art — “We restore order through imagination. We instill hope again and again and again” — that for uplifting better and sentimentalized worse could be tattooed on the DNA of all our major movie artisans, from Spielberg down to the hacks. Walt, says “Saving Mr. Banks,” is really the father of us all. The movie just uses a spoonful of medicine to make the sugar go down.