Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, left, and Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers in 'Saving Mr. Banks.'
(Photo: Francois Duhamel, Disney)
By Claudia Puig
What Mary Poppins' prickly author P.L. Travers feared and loathed above all else was a Disney-fied version of the tale she wrote about a magical nanny.
Ironically, the story highlighting the clash of wills between Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has undergone its own embellished Disneyfication in Saving Mr. Banks (*** out of four; rated PG-13, opening Friday in select cities).
Travers would have despised it. For the rest of us it's an entertaining, affecting, deftly acted saga, interspersed with illustrative flashbacks from Travers' childhood. But a biopic it is not.
It may not fully romanticize Walt Disney, but it does add a sugary spoonful to his contentious relationship with Travers, implying there was a conciliatory resolution.
From all accounts, Travers remained bitter until her death at 96 about the musical made from her book. She reportedly approached Disney at the movie's premiere in 1964 insisting he remove a key scene with Dick Van Dyke. .
Disney's avuncular manner and distinctive voice are cleverly captured by the ever-affable Hanks. Those who knew Disney can best say if his persona was softened.. But the character of Travers (nee Helen Goff) is leavened with nary a ¼ teaspoonful of sweetener.
Ill-tempered and acid-tongued, Travers defends her intellectual property more vigorously than the most assiduous lawyer.
Alternating between disgruntled consternation and a scowl, Thompson is fabulous as the author who must sell the rights to her beloved book due to money problems.
Her fears of Poppins' perversion into a cartoon or a too-cheery portrayal are unceasing.
"She'll be cavorting and twinkling and grinning toward a happy ending like a kamikaze," natters Travers.
She heartily rejects a warbling Poppins.
"Mary Poppins absolutely does not sing," Travers argues. "She's not a giddy woman. She doesn't jig about. I won't have her be one of your silly cartoons."
But as history shows, Disney prevailed.
She called him "a trickster, a fraudster, a sneak."
He called her Pam -- though she insisted on being addressed as Mrs. Travers.
She wasn't always so surly and demanding. An exuberant child growing up inAustralia, her imagination was sparked by a charismatic father (Colin Farrell) who loved poetry.
While it glosses over facts and skips a few decades in Travers' life, the film powerfully explores how art can be influenced by childhood trauma.
As a girl, Travers was entranced, but also emotionally wounded, by her mercurial, alcoholic father, who influenced the character of Poppins' Mr. Banks.
It was this key into her psyche that cracked the case for the boss. Walt Disney understood what it was to love a father who was harsh to his children.
"Don't you want to finish the story and let it go and move on with your life," he asked.
As a father himself, Disney had promised his daughters to make a movie of the classic book. He persevered for 20 years.
The film is a gentle meditation on the responsibilities of parenthood- familial and creative. Disney and Travers were each disappointed by unavailable fathers. Both felt powerfully connected to their creative offspring. Disney compares his love for Mickey Mouse to Travers' dedication to Poppins.
According to her creator, "Mary Poppins is the very enemy of whimsy and sentiment."
Not so Saving Mr. Banks.
Sentiment is at its heart. The legions who grew up on Disney's Mary Poppins will find it delightfully satisfying to hear snippets of its enormously catchy songs and watch its captivating creative journey.