Saving Mr. Banks, released by Disney, is a movie about the making of a Disney movie (Mary Poppins), in which Walt Disney himself (played by Tom Hanks) is a major character. It includes a visit to Disneyland and, if you look closely, a teaser for its companion theme park in Florida (as yet unbuilt, when the story takes place). A large Mickey Mouse plush toy appears from time to time to provide an extra touch of humor and warmth.
But it would be unfair to dismiss this picture, directed by John Lee Hancock from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, as an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It?s more of a mission statement.
It also revisits a proud moment in the company?s history: the making of Mary Poppins, at the time (the early '60s) the most expensive live-action film Disney had produced, and eventually one of the most lucrative and beloved. More precisely, Saving Mr Banks recounts the consummation, in business and creative terms, of Walt Disney?s long courtship of P L Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, played with spirited fussiness by Emma Thompson. Fans of the book and the earlier movie will know that Mr Banks is the father of the children cared for by Mary Poppins, but even those entirely innocent of her previous literary and cinematic incarnations - if such people exist - will find this movie accessible and enjoyable.
That is part of the Disney brand, of course: fun for everyone, with a spoonful of therapeutic medicine to help the sugar seem nutritious. The best parts of Saving Mr Banks offer an embellished, tidied-up but nonetheless reasonably authentic glimpse of the Disney entertainment machine at work.
Mrs Travers, as she insists on being called, is a starchy, grouchy Londoner whose books have stopped selling. At the urging of her agent, she submits to the ordeal of a first-class flight to Los Angeles, a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel and daily limousine service to Burbank, where she is plied with cookies, snack cakes, Jell-O squares and, when she insists on it, tea.
None of this Southern California hospitality - or the friendliness of her driver (an unusually sunny Paul Giamatti) - melts Mrs Travers? determination to protect her creation from Disney?s whimsy. ?I won?t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons,? she declares. Walt, aware that he does not yet have the rights to Mary Poppins, grants her script approval. She proceeds to torment the screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) with objections about everything from casting to costumes to the grammar of the screenplay. The audience, meanwhile, is treated to stripped-down, in-progress versions of songs from Mary Poppins, notably the infectious Let?s Go Fly a Kite.
But this is not just the tale of how the happy artisans of Hollywood and their boss soften the heart of an uptight Englishwoman (who was actually born in Australia). It is that, of course. Thompson has no peer when it comes to British stiffness, and Hanks is a master of evocative facial hair, American regional accents and earnest likability.
His Missouri twang, mellowed by the California sun, is as friendly and reassuring as the real Walt Disney?s used to be every Sunday night when he introduced his television broadcast. Usually preceded by an off-screen cough - a premonition of the lung cancer that would kill him a couple of years after the Mary Poppins premiere - Walt is less a mogul than a kind and reliable daddy. He dotes on his intellectual properties (the mouse, the park, the picture) as if they were his children. He wants to adapt Mrs Travers? novel to keep a promise to his daughters.
As it turns out - as we discover long before Walt does - the author?s own daddy issues are at the heart of her reluctance to play nice in the Disney creative sandbox. Saving Mr Banks toggles between 1961 Burbank and a dusty village in Australia more than half a century before, when the future P.L. Travers was a little girl named Helen Goff (Annie Rose Buckley), nicknamed Ginty by her beloved father (Colin Farrell). An impish, imaginative fellow, he is also a hopeless alcoholic, barely able to hold onto his job managing a bank, and causing his poor wife (Ruth Wilson) no end of worry.
Hancock (The Blind Side) integrates the two plots - the charming backstage comedy and the Down Under family melodrama - as smoothly as he can. As is often the case in movies structured this way, though, the elements distort rather than illuminate each other. The tale of Ginty and her dad is thick with dubious sentiment and leavened with glimmers of sensitive wisdom, but the light it casts on the grown-up Mrs. Travers is harshly literal. The film asks us to believe that she is at once an astute storyteller and an emotional automaton entirely lacking in psychological insight. It also indulges in the common biographical fallacy of grounding adult creativity in childhood misery.
Walt and Mrs Travers have that in common, and Walt, in a late, decisive conversation, explains that their job as storytellers is to ?restore order? to the chaos of life and infuse bleak realities with bright, happy colors. Imagination, in other words, is a form of repression. Joy is a kind of denial. Mary Poppins may have had a different idea: She is, on the page, committed to solving problems rather than wishing them away. But the Disney version has proved more powerful, more seductive and, it almost goes without saying, more profitable.