It's no surprise to learn that the author who gave us the indomitable Mary Poppins wasn't herself raised by a flying governess with an uncanny knack for soldiering through life's difficulties. P.L. Travers was the eldest daughter of an itinerant bank manager whose alcoholism and anti-social behavior led him to bounce around the wilds of Australia in the early part of the 20th century, with his family in tow.
In 1961, Travers, expertly played with the stiffest of upper lips by Emma Thompson, finds herself a bit down on her luck, with royalty income drying up and no inspiration to write more books. She's forced to succumb, after some handwringing and indignation, to a long-standing offer from Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to turn her beloved Mary Poppins into a film character.
"Saving Mr. Banks" tells the story of the making of "Mary Poppins," and it's adapted in part from audio recordings of screenwriting sessions made at the behest of Travers, who wanted to maintain control of the project. Much of the movie takes place in the confines of a writing room, where Travers, with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers, transform the novel's pages into a musical score. Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak) is a wounded war veteran who isn't convinced that he should be kowtowing to a cantankerous British dowager. Richard (Jason Schwartzman) is more naturally optimistic, seeming to think that the right combination of bouncy major chords will induce Travers to let her hair down. It is oddly thrilling to see songs like "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" and "A Spoonful of Sugar" come to life.
The movie alternates with scenes from Travers' childhood, when she went by the name of Ginty Goff. Her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) is a bit of a dreamer, and a hard-luck case, who finds joy only in rollicking with his daughters or drinking, or occasionally both. Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) is an unapologetic champion of her father, and his deterioration brings the world crashing down around her. This crisis forms the backdrop of "Mary Poppins," in which the children of Mr. and Mrs. Banks, a harried father and a somewhat idle mother, are rescued by a magical nanny.
Walt Disney himself, played by an avuncular Tom Hanks, is no stranger to magical thinking. The movie credits his mix of charm, persistence and folk psychology with breaking down Travers' icy facade. It's hard to know what to make of a portrait of Walt Disney etched into a Disney film. If the portrait isn't quite a hagiography, it does paint a comforting portrait of a gentle man who rose above challenging circumstances to become a kind of national uncle. Mr. Hanks approaches the role with his trademark modesty, mostly fading into the background until he's required to wave a fairy wand to move the story along.
The movie really belongs to Miss Thompson, who plays Travers with a mix of steel and fragility that lends emotional heft to the scenes from the past. It seems as if Travers is slowly being ground down by her memories to acknowledge some painful truths about herself. On the page it sounds a bit corny, but Miss Thompson sells it admirably.
TITLE: "Saving Mr. Banks"
CREDITS: Directed by John Lee Hancock; written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith
RATING: PG-13 for scenes of alcohol abuse
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS