Saving Mr. Banks is a pleasant movie about the making of Mary Poppins, filmed with grace and directed with care. It contains two outstanding performances, by Emma Thompson and Colin Farrell, and a performance by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney that is neither good nor bad but is strange enough to be interesting.
The film is too intelligent and well-crafted to dismiss and too good to hate. Some people will love it, and, at worst, most people will like it a little.
And yet … just something about it … feels like a snow job. Maybe everything in it is true. Maybe Walt Disney really did have the patience of a saint. Maybe Pamela Travers (the author of Mary Poppins) really did curl up in bed holding a stuffed Mickey Mouse. And maybe she really was deeply moved by the finished movie. I doubt it, but no matter.
If Saving Mr. Banks were 100 percent false yet felt true, that would be fine. But this has the self-conscious whiff if not of mendacity, then of public relations.
But then, you can’t really expect unbounded spontaneity when a studio makes a movie about its own founder and its own movie — especially one about to have its 50th anniversary in 2014.
Saving Mr. Banks is set in two time periods, in the early 1960s lead-up to Mary Poppins, but with frequent flashbacks to Travers’ girlhood in the early 20th century.
In terms of story, the 1960s scenes are much more entertaining — there is movement, things happen — and yet the early scenes have an integrity about them. As directed by John Lee Hancock, Farrell doesn’t necessarily play Travers’ father as he really was, but rather the father who was recorded in a little girl’s memory, as impossibly handsome, unconditionally loving and tragically flawed.
That bond, between a father who’s hopeless in the world and the little girl who worships him, is the most poignant thing in the film. It goes a decent way toward ennobling the adult Travers, who is not otherwise sympathetic but rather a brittle personality, one either under the constant misapprehension that she is being attacked or that the world is in a conspiracy to annoy her. The casting of the naturally likable Thompson softens this, by making her seem vulnerable beneath the nastiness. But it does make one imagine that Travers was a piece of work.
The frequent shifts back and forth through time constitute a clumsiness of the screenplay, which Hancock and cinematographer John Schwartzman handle with panache. In one particularly lovely transition, we see Pamela as a child, beautifully framed in the back door of a train. As the train moves away, the camera lifts to catch the steam coming from the engine, which dissolves into the sky of 1961.
As the two story threads come together — that is, as Pamela’s past begins to affect what is happening in the present — the movie improves. It becomes less scattered. Yet even then, the specific way in which the past exerts its influence feels a little too easy and neat.
A key scene, in which Disney talks to Travers in her London living room, is presented as a tribute to his sensitivity, forbearance and profound insight into the human heart. Indeed, I suspect that it’s purely as a concession to realism that the movie doesn’t depict Disney actually walking across the Atlantic to get there.
Which brings us to Hanks, who doesn’t quite seem like Walt Disney but more like Tom Hanks in a wig and a mustache. His Midwestern accent goes in and out, with a dash of John Huston here and some Lionel Barrymore there. Really, there is no believing him for a second, and yet, like the movie stars of the classic era, Hanks automatically gets some special exemption, because there’s no disbelieving him either. He just leaves us contentedly accepting that if Disney were a lot like Hanks, he’d have acted exactly like that.