Saving Mr. Banks (2013) is, for better or worse, about the magic of Walt Disney. The movie tells the story of the production of Mary Poppins (1964), held up for 20 years because of the refusal of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the original story, to give Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) the rights to make the book a movie. Through hard work, charm and by every sentimental, heartstring-tugging means he knows, Disney is able to win over the particular Travers and secure the rights. Saving Mr. Banks has a real sweetness to it and is buoyed by a wonderful performance and is therefore enjoyable, but that’s also earned by every sentimental, heartstring-tugging means it knows.
After 20 years of haggling with Disney, Mrs. Travers (Always Mrs. Travers, she insists) can no longer ignore the financial benefits of selling her story and agrees, under duress from her long suffering agent, to leave London and visit the studio chief in Los Angeles. There she is greeted by Ralph (Paul Giamatti), the perky limo driver, whose perkiness is gauche and irritating to Mrs. Travers (just about everything in America is). Disney has his best men working on the potential movie including the screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the music and lyrics team of Robert and Richard Sherman (played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, respectively). Things do not go well. Mrs. Travers hates everything, from the costumes and the scenic design to the songs. When the team charmingly make up a word to fit a rhyme, she insists they “unmake it up,” which gives them pause about what she’ll think when “Supercalifragilisticexpialido
She does all this because she can, as she hasn’t given up the rights yet, and she delights (as much as the stiff-lipped Mrs. Travers delights in anything) in watching Disney and his staff bow and scrape. She also is testing Disney; she isn’t completely married to the idea of giving Mary Poppins up, and she is naturally hawkish about her presentation and wants to make sure it’s perfectly right. And if her demands upset Disney to the point of his throwing his hands up about the whole project, that’s just as well too. All of Disney’s best tricks get him nowhere. He festoons her hotel room with stuffed Mickeys and Donalds, and she stuffs them in the closet. He gives her a private tour of Disneyland; she calls it a dollar-printing factory. She says she “simply can’t abide animation,” striking a cruel blow, and fights its inclusion in the film. Slowly but surely, though, Disney wears her down, appealing to her sense of family and legacy and, enrolling her help, displaying a finer understanding of the story. She finally acquiesces.
It’s at this point that the movie would like us to acquiesce as well, giving in to its feel good schmaltz, and for the most part, we do. I couldn’t shake the feeling, however, that there isn’t much here, and what should have been a spoonful of sugar ends up being a gallon. Intercut throughout the whole story are flashbacks to Mrs. Travers’ childhood in Australia, which act as an analyst’s couch in terms of why she is the way she is and what the Mary Poppins story is really about. These episodes rarely add much by way of insight and break up the flow of the main story and feel tacked on. Also tacked on but to much better effect, the movie is seeped in the music and images of the Mary Poppins movie, using the built-in emotion they provide to give the impression that Saving Mr. Banks is earning the same feeling. Thompson is wonderful as a stern and unlovable woman who is lovable just the same because she’s Emma Thompson, and she and Ralph the driver create a nice relationship that remains the sole organic affection in the movie. But everything else is borrowed from the movie Poppins and our own, universal memories of our interaction with the real Mr. Disney and his art from our childhood.
Any movie about Disney would be up against this, but it doesn’t seem that Saving Mr. Banks is doing much to combat it—or worse, is lazily embracing it. Last, there’s an insidiousness about Disney’s insistence on the rights. He basically strong-arms her, with stuffed animals and carousel rides, yes, but strong-arms her just the same. Mrs. Travers has every right to hold onto the story that she created if she wants to, but Saving Mr. Banks hides behind the fact that we all love the subsequent movie to make it all right that he’s basically badgering this woman. None of these problems are overt, nor does any one of them sink the whole thing, but together they make for a shallow experience. Immediately delightful but ultimately forgettable.