By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney doubter's delight, the Mouse House making a movie about a movie classic it already made, with Walt Disney saving the day. What could possibly be allowed to go wrong, under the studio's hermetic control of its image and heritage?
The most satisfying portions of Saving Mr. Banks occur when the movie adds pinches of salt to the spoonfuls of sugar making this medicine go down. Always in the Hollywood segments, where author P.L. Travers — a stuffily marvelous Emma Thompson — reluctantly spends two weeks in 1961 refusing Walt (Tom Hanks, who else?) the rights to turn her Mary Poppins character into a movie.
"She'll be cavorting and twinkling and careening toward her happy ending like a kamikaze," trills Mrs. Travers, which she insists upon being called, even by her lawyer. Walt calls her Pamela or Pam, as if good ol' Missouri familiarity can melt her British chill. He's unflappably cordial, even when she insults his "silly cartoons." Their prickly relationship is played to the hilt by Thompson and Hanks, in a movie twinkling and careening to its happy ending, as Disney doubters fear.
These Hollywood segments crackle with the fractious machinations of crafting a movie milestone, filmed with a kicky retro gloss. Where the movie strays too often is halfway around the world and a half-century back. That's when Pamela (now Annie Rose Buckley) grew up in dead-end Australia with an imaginative, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), who inspired Mary Poppins' employer, Mr. Banks.
It's all solid material, tenderly acted and optimistic until whiskey douses the whimsy. Director-chair psychologist John Lee Hancock desperately wants to connect these scenes to older Pamela's reluctance, and does, sooner than he thinks and more often than necessary. Thompson gets a faraway look in her eyes signaling a flashback, and interest wanes.
One Australian scene in particular, showing Pamela's mother (Ruth Wilson) damaged by her father's failures, could be excised. Or just tell that side of the story late, in one extended, revealing flashback. Less schmaltz and distraction from the glossy Hollywood backlot comedy folks are paying to see because that's what Disney's selling.
That side of Saving Mr. Banks brims with amusing supporting performances, led by the creative team of songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), exasperated by Pamela's demands and impatience for made-up words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Paul Giamatti could be a prattling Disney 'toon sidekick as Pamela's chauffeur, until he's swept up in Hancock's climactic rush of sentiment.
Saving Mr. Banks ends with Pamela and Walt on happier terms than is probably true. Disney's printing the legend when facts don't fit the feel-good formula. "We need to protect the picture," Walt says, justifying why outspoken Pamela isn't invited to Mary Poppins' premiere. Some things never change.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.