Somewhere, Uncle Walt is smiling. The Mouse House impresario’s protracted courtship of novelist P.L. Travers to secure the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” has all the makings of an irresistible backstage tale, and it’s been brought to the screen with a surplus of old-fashioned Disney showmanship in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Thick with affection for Hollywood’s most literal “dream factory” and wry in its depiction of the studio filmmaking process, director John Lee Hancock’s “Sunset Blvd.” lite (which opens Dec. 13 after London and AFI festival berths) should earn far more than tuppence from holiday audiences — and from awards voters who can scarcely resist this sort of mash note to the magic of movies (e.g., “Argo,” “The Artist”).
Given its now-classic status among several generations of moviegoers, it’s easy to forget that “Mary Poppins” seemed far from a sure bet when it first appeared in 1964, given Disney’s spotty record as a producer of live-action fare. And one can easily imagine a fascinating film of its own devoted to the production of “Poppins,” from the canny casting of Julie Andrews (after she’d been passed over for the concurrent film version of “My Fair Lady”) to the creation of the film’s backlot, matte-painted London and the pioneering visual effects of Peter Ellenshaw. But “Saving Mr. Banks” has a somewhat different story to tell, about the ways in which life influences fiction, the ownership writers feel over their creations, and the conflicts and compromises responsible for bringing some of the most iconic Hollywood movies into existence.
The film opens on images of blue skies and palm trees that suggest L.A. or Beverly Hills. But in fact, we’re in rural Australia circa 1906, where the young Travers (nee Helen Goff, played by newcomer Annie Rose) comes of age as one of three daughters of a harried mother (Ruth Wilson) and a loving but manic father (an excellent Colin Farrell) given to drink and more adept at inventing tall tales than at navigating the world of grown-up responsibility. This sets up the primary structural device of Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay, which continues to move back and forth between Travers’ formative years and her Disney (mis)adventures, gradually revealing the people and events from the author’s past whose aura can be felt in her most famous literary creation (including a stern aunt played by Rachel Griffiths in proto-Poppins mode).
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With her sharp, clipped diction and a wrought-iron upper lip, Travers (Emma Thompson, superb) has been steadily pursued by Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years by the time she finally agrees to meet him in L.A. — a decision prompted more by financial need than by any real desire to see her work brought to the screen. So beyond the carefully manicured hedgerows of Disney’s art-deco Burbank studios (where much of the pic was shot) we go, as a game of inches ensues: the willful author, who’s never so much as laid eyes on a screenplay, resisting even the slightest change to her vision; and the canny family-entertainment magnate gently nudging the project toward the movie he knows the public will want to see.
Much of “Saving Mr. Banks” unfolds in a small rehearsal studio where Travers sits, stoic and unimpressed, as three of the movie’s principal architects give her their best pitch: Veteran Disney animator and “Poppins” co-screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and longtime studio songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (warmly played in spot-on characterizations by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Considering that Travers arrives steadfast in her belief that a “Poppins” films should include no musical numbers or animated sequences, they have their work cut out for them. (Though “Saving Mr. Banks” builds towards a cathartic happy ending, in real life Travers, then well into her 90s, authorized producer Cameron Mackintosh’s stage version of “Poppins” only on the condition that no one from the film version, including the Shermans, be involved.)
Hancock, who cut his own directorial teeth at the studio (on the inspirational baseball drama “The Rookie” and the underrated “The Alamo”) is sometimes a bit too on-the-nose with his parallel storytelling, too heavy with Thomas Newman’s bouncy score, and too eager to pluck at our heartstrings (at which he nevertheless succeeds). But if 2007’s “Enchanted” remains undisputed as the great, impish, postmodern riff on Disney iconography, “Saving Mr. Banks” is the unapologetically retro valentine Disney himself might have made. It’s a bit square, never particularly surprising, yet very rich in its sense of creative people and their spirit of self-reinvention — the Outback girl refashioned as a prim and proper British lady, the Missouri farm boy who turned himself into a cross between Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz.
And if someone had to play Disney in a movie, a better candidate than Hanks, himself a gleaming icon of wholesome American entertainment, is hard to imagine. The actor doesn’t try for the real Disney’s distinctive Midwestern voice (probably for the best, given his hither-and-yon Boston accent in “Captain Phillips”), but he captures all of his folksy charisma and canny powers of persuasion — at once father, confessor and the shrewdest of businessmen.
A couple of anachronistic touches (like a modern-day MGM logo glimpsed in an early airport scene) notwithstanding, production designer Michael Corenblith does a highly impressive job of creating sun-scorched, turn-of-the-century Australia as well as early-‘60s L.A., helped by the fact that both the Disney studio and Disneyland itself haven’t changed all that much in the half-century since. John Schwartzman’s warm widescreen lensing and costume designer Daniel Orlandi’s Kennedy-era costumes lend further polish to a uniformly solid craft roster.