Mind you, this is a most entertaining film and an intriguing look into the “back story” behind “Mary Poppins,” one of the best Walt Disney live-action movies produced during his lifetime.
The testy relationship between “Mary Poppins'” author, P.L. Travers, and Disney himself makes for a fun and often poignant story. But then this is a Walt Disney Studios production about its own founder.
With the underlying rights to so much of the 1964 Disney movie itself belonging to that studio, it would no doubt have been impossible to make this film anywhere else but at Disney. Yet what does that do to its portrayal of the studio’s founder?
Go further: You also need the Sherman brothers’ songs from the movie musical, as these are every bit as much a part of the story. You then need to portray those brothers and other Disney artists and employees — and you’ll do so with kid gloves. So it’s only fair to wonder how many lawyers labored over this screenplay.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is not masquerading as a documentary though. This is, when you come right down to it, a fictional story about the creation of a fictional story, in other words a make-believe story about the creation of make-believe. It’s a gentle and gentile valentine to old Hollywood and can be readily enjoyed for that.
But since these were real people, you wonder: Is this what really happened? Or another amusing fiction like last year’s “Hitchcock,” a fantasy version of Alfred Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife during the making of “Psycho?”
One doesn’t need to do any research to know that Uncle Walt, as portrayed here, is the folksy figure many of us grew up with watching TV as he introduced weekly segments of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.”
He most certainly is not the complex man who has been more accurately portrayed in many books and biographies, the latest being Neal Gabler’s 912-page bio.
Tom Hanks gets just the right flavor to pull off this warm and fuzzy portrayal — a combination of your favorite uncle mixed with a kindly movie mogul. Oh sure, he’s a man used to getting what he wants. Yet one who insists everyone at the studio be on a first-name basis with him and affects a total lack of pretense.
For his opponent, Emma Thompson plays the stubborn author as a sourpuss and crank. You’re made to understand she’s determined to protect her legacy as a writer, but she makes absurd demands — such as keeping the color red out of the picture altogether. Really!
It’s as if she’s testing Disney, hoping he will fail and she will then not have to sign over her beloved character to a man whose main contribution to 20th-century art, from her point of view, is a talking mouse.
For the crux of the matter is that when Disney invited Travers to come to Hollywood in 1961 to work with a screenwriter and composers on the film for a couple of weeks, he still didn’t have the rights to her book. So it’s touch-and-go through the entire movie whether there will even be a “Mary Poppin” movie.
This fish-out-of-water story about a prickly writer in LA-LA-land unfolds on parallel tracks with that of her childhood in Australia. The movie slides back and forth between these two tracks, creating a past that is ever present in the author’s head.
As she battles with Disney writer and story-boarder extraordinaire Don DaGardi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, both excellent), Travers’ mind drifts back to her early life in the remote Outback.
Young Travers (Annie Rose Buckley) grows up with a harried mom (Ruth Wilson) and a troubled dad (Colin Farrell), whom she dotes on ferociously. As she labors over a possible movie version, her mind drifts back to those days more and more.
You grow to understand — it takes Walt longer to catch on — that her father’s difficulties with drink and illness are reflected in certain aspects of “Mary Poppins,” especially the character of Mr. Banks, the father in her novel who hires Mary Poppins to oversee his small children.
Helen Goff, born in 1899 in Maryborough, Queensland, emigrated to England in 1924 where she worked as an actress, journalist, poet and writer. She wrote her first “Mary Poppins” book in 1933 and took — the filmmakers consider this highly important — the pen name of Travers, her father’s first name.
Thompson plays her as strong-minded yet often unreasonable with a bit of Julie Andrews’ prim Britishness thrown in.Yet there is much historical evidence that Travers was an artist who took her writing and her character very seriously.
Her influences range from Peter Pan’s J.M. Barrie to William Butler Yeats and Gurdjieff in the creation of this quintessential British nanny with magical powers.
But the movie decides that the character of Mary Poppins is based on her aunt (Rachel Griffiths), her mother’s sister, who came to sort out the distressed family when her father fell ill.
So the movie, written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, simplifies the author and her nemesis/benefactor, Walt Disney. The two are made into characters built largely for a Disney family comedy. One with a requisite happy ending.
As such, you may enjoy “Saving Mr. Banks.” The 1961 Hollywood episodes have a cheerful, retro feel with the movie studio’s personnel all chirpy and “creative” — song lyrics come without much hesitation — and so many scenes at the Burbank lot that no one seeing this film will ever need a studio tour.
Her lodging at the famous Beverly Hills Hotel is played for nearly as many laughs as “Plaza Suite.” These sections also include a fictional driver played by Paul Giamatti, who despite his overly inquisitive and friendly ways becomes the one American the British lady feels she can trust.
The Australian episodes have a desolate, Wild West spirit with strong sunlight and barren hills. You can feel the true grit so much that you wonder why sand didn’t gum up the cameras.
But what confounds your embrace of the feel-good tale with the overlapping story lines and a cheerful theme is that the real Helen Goff, aka P.L. (Pamela) Travers, really disliked what she considered her ill treatment by Hollywood. She never cottoned to the fact “Mary Poppins” was a musical and actively disapproved of the animated penguins.
Indeed many years later, when she agreed to let Mary Poppins star in a stage musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh, she stipulated that no Americans would be involved in the writing or music.
Take that, Walt Disney!
Opens: December 13 limited; December 20, 2013 wide (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: Ruby Films/Essential Media and Entertainment in association with BBC Films and Hopscotch Features
Cast: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Bradford Whitford, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenwriters: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Producers: Alison Owen, Ian Collie, Philip Steuer
Executive producers: Paul Trijbits, Christine Langan, Andrew Mason, Troy Lum
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Michael Corenblith
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi
Editor: Mark Livolsi
PG-13 rating, 126 minutes