Saving Mr. Banks is Tom Hanks' second film with "Saving" in the title, though there are no deadly Nazi barrages this time, and no Pfc. Ryan to go searching for.
The battle in this sweet and affecting piece of Hollywood history is one of wills - between a hugely popular entrepreneur, Walt Disney, and a hugely reluctant British author, P.L. Travers. Disney, played by Hanks with an accustomed-to-getting-his-way insouciance, is eager to adapt Travers' beloved children's book series, Mary Poppins, to the big screen.
Travers does not want her characters compromised, commercialized. As written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, and realized, beautifully, by Emma Thompson, Travers is a woman with a dry wit, a spiritual bent, and an inconsolable hurt that goes back to her childhood in Australia. She also has a bank account that's thinning fast - her agent is imploring her to do the Disney deal.
Of course, she does make the trip from foggy London town to sunny Southern California, and she does meet with Disney, who is full of entreaties - and who treats her to a personal tour of his theme park. How can anyone say no after a run through the Magic Kingdom, a ride on the carousel?
But Travers continues to balk. And the film, directed by The Blind Side's John Lee Hancock, continues to toggle back to Travers' youth, where a father (Colin Farrell), drowning his woes in drink, dragged his family from one unpromising Down Under outpost to the next. (Annie Rose Buckley plays the author as a child in the flashbacks; Rachel Griffiths appears, with carpet bag and umbrella in tow, as the aunt who may have been the source of inspiration for Travers' indefatigible nanny, Ms. Poppins.)
Saving Mr. Banks, set in 1961, is smart, delightful. Its sappier back-story revelations are ameliorated by Thompson's pitch-perfect performance - a stubborn woman who finally succumbs to the backlot magic orchestrated (with the best intentions) by Uncle Walt. Thompson is made up, and dressed up, to be prim and elegant, and her response to Disney's relentless wooing remains steadfastly cool.
She comes to appreciate the earnest chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) hired to squire her around, and she comes to appreciate the songwriting siblings who are putting Mary Poppins to music. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman are tunesmiths Richard and Robert Sherman, and Schwartzman is especially fun, working the upright piano and chirping out the first drafts of "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "Let's Go Fly a Kite."
As history, and 13 Academy Award nominations, will attest, Disney ultimately had his way, and Mary Poppins was brought to the screen, with Julie Andrews in the title role. So Saving Mr. Banks ends with Travers sitting teary-eyed at the Hollywood premiere. It's kind of a breaking-the-fourth-wall moment, because she will hardly be the only audience member sniffling and sobbing away.
Saving Mr. Banks *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by John Lee Hancock. With Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, and Jason Schwartzman. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 5 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters