Stories set in Hollywood tend to traffic in sex and scandal. Think Sunset Boulevard, L.A. Confidential, or even Singin' in the Rain and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But neither sex nor scandal would do for Disney's docudrama about the 1960s development of Mary Poppins. That'd be crass and wildly out of place. So instead director John Lee Hancock piles on earnest whimsy and loads of schmaltz, which makes for a sweet but not terribly interesting tale.
Emma Thompson stars as P.L. Travers, the cantankerous and stubborn author of the Mary Poppins children's books. Since 1943, Travers has been pursued by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who desperately wishes to turn her stories into a full-color movie musical. To say she finds this idea repulsive is an understatement, but the threat of bankruptcy forces her to fly to Hollywood and give an adaptation a go. In a bizarre business move, Disney agrees to have her sit in with his screenwriter and songwriters, developing a project for which she hasn't yet signed over the rights. With that fights about animation, casting, colors, songs, and character design begin!
The main thrust of the film is how Disney finally convinced her to trust him with a character who feels like family to her. But throughout the feature, this story is intersected (or arguably interrupted) by flashbacks of Travers' past as a little girl dedicated to a playful but irresponsible drunk of a father (a deeply charming Colin Farrell). These scenes begin warm and welcoming, but soon turn dour. Frustratingly, Hancock repeats the maudlin beats in this tragic childhood section, showing us multiple instances a slurring father hiding booze bottles, acting out in public, and--cliché alert!--coughing up blood into a crisp white handkerchief. One example of each would serve. But aside from being tiresome and slightly insulting to the audience's intelligence, these repeated plot points make for a strange tonal juxtaposition to the devoted chipperness of the movie-making plotline with its musical snippets and overeager California archetypes.
Still, Thompson and Hanks make for an enchanting pair of rivals. In their hands, Travers and Disney play out as perfect foils. They share a stubbornness to get their own way, but their methods and attitudes are entirely different. Travers, with her cold British demeanor, could be described as condescending and bullying. But Disney is just as aggressive, though in a more cajoling manner, offering gifts and personalized tours to win favor. These tactics are acted out over and over in how they address each other, purposely refusing each other's preferred monikers "Walt" and "Mrs. Travers" in favor of "Mr. Disney" and "Pam." It's a joy to watch them push and pull on each other. But while this is the major selling point of the movie, it's ultimately a minor part of it. Instead, most of the film is focused on this glum author and her tormented past. As a result, the allusions to the Mary Poppins movie so many of us have come to love is used mostly as set dressing.
Basically, if you were hoping this docudrama would give a thorough insight into the creation of the movie musical Mary Poppins, you will be sorely disappointed. While Hancock sets up the battleground of Travers' and Disney's dueling versions of the magical nanny, only a few skirmishes are given screentime. Considering Travers sneers as the idea of inventing a rhyming word for one song, I expected to see all hell break loose when she was presented with "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." While teased, this scene never transpires. In its place are more flashbacks, and a string of big emotion monologues for just about every key player. These make it easy to see why Saving Mr. Banks is a movie its stars can sink their teeth into, but sadly when all is said and done I don't think there is much for audiences to latch onto.