Saving Mr. Banks is a quite unconventional story for a Disney film, yet it possesses quite conventional Disney trappings (charm, sentiment, a twinkle in its eye always), making it an awkward package that often feels caught between two minds. With Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as none other than Walt Disney, it chronicles the apparently arduous task of wresting the movie rights for Mary Poppins from the exceedingly prickly Travers.
Through a series of flashbacks to her childhood in Australia, Travers' extreme reluctance to part with her beloved characters for a film adaptation is explained; her story is deeply personal -- the only way she's ever been able to come to terms with the alcoholism and untimely death of her father, portrayed here by Colin Farrell.
The scars of her childhood manifest themselves even decades later in the form of rigidity, rudeness, emotional distance and a total lack of a sense of humor that is stoked even further by Disney's repeated overtures to buy the rights to Mary Poppins, which, as the film begins, is nearing an end game. Out of money, Travers is whisked from London to Los Angeles where she's given the full Disney treatment -- complete with hotel room filled with stuffed animals -- in hopes of finally obtaining her approval.
There's an amusing charm to Thompson's annoyed and flummoxed reaction to all things Disney that lasts maybe 20 minutes. Having a killjoy like Travers grapple with a giant stuffed Mickey Mouse is a pretty good sight gag, and there's a classic odd couple appeal to her interactions with the saccharine, personable Disney and the creative team trying to adapt her book, a team that includes Bradley Whitford as screenwriter Don DaGradi and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the songwriting duo of Robert and Richard Sherman.
Once that initial charm wears off, though, the premise becomes a bit grating. That's owed to both the structure of the film and the immovable, unchangeable force that is Thompson's Travers for much of its duration. She's not just demanding and particular, she's downright childish and mean. Her abuse of her limo driver Ralph, played by Paul Giamatti, is the most noteworthy example of her poor behavior, but she dishes it out to everyone at Disney.
Travers is a difficult protagonist to root for even when you understand her deep attachment to the characters she created, which brings us to the other problem. Because those flashbacks to her childhood are interspersed with her present-day bitchiness and because they only gradually reveal the depths of her pain, you spend much of the film not fully understanding where she's coming from. When you do finally learn the exact inspiration for Mary Poppins and when she does finally start to warm up to Walt and his team, there's a satisfying payoff, but one that feels cheaply earned. Her almost instantaneous transformation -- spurred on by a long-winded speech from St. Walt -- isn't quite believable.
This is a good story, but it doesn't feel well executed. It's all a bit jumbled, as if a reshuffling of some key plot points would have done wonders. One of the most interesting parts of the film comes during the credits, when a tape of the real P.L. Travers conversing with the real Don DaGradi and Sherman brothers discussing the script reveals that, yes, indeed, she was that cold and terse and exacting.
The tape is the inspiration for one of the film's most memorable scenes, and as it played, I found myself wishing it had been a part of the opening credits rather than the closing. Earlier knowledge of it, just like many other parts of the film, would have left me much more invested in its eventual outcome.