There’s perhaps no meta-commentary more opaque than a Disney movie about making a Disney movie: It’s bound to be less a film in its own right than an advertisement for its own creative process.
When Saving Mr. Banks promises the behind-the-scenes of bringing Mary Poppins to life, a happy ending’s guaranteed. But there’s a thrill watching show business get made, and the real-life story was inherently dramatic: Author P.L. Travers fought tooth and nail for creative control.
Unfortunately, Saving Mr. Banks sanitizes things into sentimentality. Travers is reimagined as a prim, particular spinster who just needs some Disney magic to convince her to un-forbid music or animation. It’s Emma Thompson’s triumph that there’s such depth and wit in a role so thankless; the evergreen Paul Giamatti provides much-needed rapport, but otherwise, she’s an island. Glimpses of a sun-drenched Australian childhood provide enough pop psychology for Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, playing himself) to become a fairy godfather who can fix everything if she hands over the rights. Mary Poppins as warmhearted therapy is disingenuous, but it’s a Disney-Disney film, and demands its happy endings.
The movie’s meticulously rendered early-’60s Disney springs to life, and there’s a film-buff thrill in rows of concept boards and tweaks to familiar tunes. But Saving Mr. Banks trades so freely on shared nostalgia that it misses the mark. Conflict is glossed over as Travers’ peculiarities running up against better ideas, a process that swings between treacly and dismissive. Thus, we get half a dozen Mary Poppins tunes without seeing how she was convinced to allow it, as Travers becomes a footnote in her story. But still, she ends up singing along. Disney magic always wins.