There’s something a little incestuous about a studio making a movie about one of its greatest box office triumphs. But Disney’s backstage drama about how its whimsical 1964 kids’ classic Mary Poppins came to be is a delight. Have they sanded off some of Mouse House maestro Walt Disney’s rougher edges and added a spoonful or two of sugar to help the medicine go down? Sure. But John Lee Hancock’s film is a soul-stirring treat. Much of the credit has to go to Emma Thompson, who plays Mary Poppins’ author, P.L. Travers — a humorless British battle-ax who keeps resisting Disney’s siren call (and open checkbook) to sell the rights to her creation.
Just the thought of Hollywood getting its trivializing mitts on her beloved character is enough to send Travers into scowling fits of apoplexy — and Thompson gives a master class on playing the snippy sour lemon. It isn’t just that Travers thinks so little of the movies. It’s that her fictional umbrella-wielding governess means so much to her personally (we find out why through too-frequent flashbacks to her sad upbringing in rural Australia). Needing cash, she heads to Los Angeles, which she dismisses as smelling of “chlorine and sweat.” There she comes face-to-face with Uncle Walt himself (Tom Hanks), a sunny born salesman peddling can-do optimism and Tinseltown fairy dust — a cocktail she’s constitutionally immune to, which is saying something considering Hanks’ twinkly-eyed charisma. Travers bullies the film’s writer (Bradley Whitford) and the duo of composer brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). For her, the Dream Factory is nothing short of a nightmare.
Of course, we all know how the story ends — Julie Andrews’ performance is too etched into our collective childhood not to. But the trick here is how perfectly Thompson and Hanks portray the gradual thaw in their characters’ frosty alliance, empathizing with each other’s equally miserable upbringings in a beautiful three-hankie scene late in the film. Saving Mr. Banks is a wholesomely square film about a wholesomely square film. But damned if its sugar doesn’t go down like honey. B+