Emma Thompson is such a naturally effervescent presence on screen, it’s almost a shame to have her playing a character who is fussy, dour, and uptight. But she does just that—wonderfully, mind you—as Pamela “P.L” Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins.
Saving Mr. Banks is essentially a fish out of water tale, as Travers leaves the comfort of the tea cozies and tasteful décor of her London home to fly to Los Angeles, where she finds everything to be vulgar, overly casual, and sickeningly sweet. She’s a stand-on-ceremony lady in the land of nicknames, quick chumminess, and hugs.
She’s there because Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) wants to turn her books into a movie and he needs her to sign on the dotted line. She’s mortified that he’ll transform her heroine into something “cavorting and twinkling.” Disney, who is used to charming people into getting what he wants, finds her to be an unexpected challenge. A day at Disneyland doesn’t do the trick, nor does a hotel room filled with giant stuffed Disney characters. She is un-seducible. Only Paul Giamatti, as a kindly chauffeur, seems to thaw out Travers’ icy demeanor, although even that takes some time.
As we flashback to Pamela’s childhood, we see where her prickliness comes from, not to mention her extreme protectiveness of the character of Mr. Banks, the aloof father in the books. Colin Farrell plays her ne’er-do-well, alcoholic father, who nonetheless adores his daughter and teaches her the power of imagination. (Although young Pamela did have a tough-love nanny, played in a too-brief cameo by Rachel Griffiths, the intimation is that her father was equal parts Mr. Banks and Mary Poppins, herself.)
To coax her into signing over the rights, Disney promises her complete creative control of the script, so she sits in with the two composers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) and the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford). These scenes are amusing although I feel they could have had even more crackle and pop. They do, however, have the most sly visual joke of the film: While Pamela gripes that “restonsible” is not a word, Schwartzman’s Richard Sherman sheepishly slides a piece of music out of her sight. We can just see half the letters: “Supercalifrag.” Saving Mr. Banks counts on the fact that you’ll know the rest of that title to that famous song. Indeed, it assumes, quite confidently, that you already hold the film Mary Poppins dear to your heart (not necessarily the safest bet in 2013).
I certainly enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks, but I didn’t adore it. All the scenes between Pamela and Walt Disney were great: His perplexity over someone who could resist the fizzy joys of the Disney ethos were beautifully played, and the moment where Walt and Pamela finally come to an understanding is quite touching. (Could this possibly be the first time Thompson and Hanks have worked together? Get them in a romantic comedy—stat!).
But the uptight Brit vs. the guileless “let’s put on a show” cheer of the Americans grew a little tiresome, and the flashback scenes were overly sentimentalized, although I suppose you argue that was appropriate, as we were seeing them through the filter of Travers’s memory.
Still, the film is a Disney confection, well-executed, spry, and enjoyable. You’d have to be very uptight, indeed, not to enjoy at least some of its twinkling charms.