Saving Mr. Banks is likably funny and sometimes emotional. It is anchored by strong central performances and a bygone sensibility that renders it a compelling companion to Mary Poppins (1964).
But it does have its flaws.
Playing P.L. Travers, Emma Thompson is terrific, maybe even award-worthy.
As Walt Disney, Tom Hanks is equally good. He is better in Captain Phillips, but this role once again showcases the man’s ability to disappear in his character.
The supporting players are equally excellent, with Paul Giamatti (Ralph) delivering a wonderfully understated turn.
Thompson’s Travers is well developed. As is Giamatti’s Ralph.
Yet, many characters are not so well drafted. In this telling, Disney (Hanks) is a legendary artist who deserves modern day admiration. He is basically without fault, save the occasional secreted-away vice, a penchant for hyperactivity, and a slight, but never offensive, tendency to manipulate. His hero-worship characterization gives Saving Mr. Banks an unpleasant tone of self-aggrandizement for the studio that financed the film.
Travers’ family, portrayed through flashback, is treated even worse. The flashback characters (mother, father and aunt) are not actually personalities; they are melodramatic plot devices used to make the viewer feel for the film’s protagonist.
Which is where Director John Lee Hancock makes his biggest mistake. He draws too direct correlation between Travers’ past and present, often editing in flashbacks with such heavy-handed timing that the viewer feels ever-so-slightly manipulated.
For all of that, as a standalone piece of fiction, Saving Mr. Banks is well above average. We do care about Travers, no matter the film’s lack of subtlety. Were this naught but a fictional tale, I might give it a B, and would certainly go no lower than a B-minus.
But it isn’t just that. It’s a creative imagining of a real event, which is why its egregious falsehoods prove problematic.
The real Walt Disney was hardly heroic in producing Mary Poppins. Shrewd and manipulative, he used clever contractual tricks to double cross Travers. Neither he nor the Sherman brothers (played here by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) captured Travers’ fancy. Indeed, she hated them so much, even thirty years later, that her Last Will forbade them from ever again being involved in a production about her characters.
Nor did Travers like the film adaptation of her work. She did cry at the premiere, but because she was traumatized by how badly Disney had butchered her beloved work, not because she was moved by his movie. By all accounts, she even hated “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” the song that plays such a pivotal role in Saving Mr. Banks’ plot.
That Hancock’s film chooses to omit all of these facts further suggests that Walt Disney Pictures aimed to create a self-celebratory final product that was less about thematic truth and more about its own awesomeness.