In Saving Mr. Banks, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the irascible author of Mary Poppins, bitterly complains that her story will lose its realistic edge in the hands of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). This is just one way director John Lee Hancock force-feeds us gritty realism when telling the story behind the magical nanny with the flying umbrella. It seems that Saving Mr. Banks should be a little more like Poppins: light, fun and focused on whimsy. Hancock's approach isn't a complete failure, though, thanks to strong acting and some impressive moments of storytelling.
The fact-based narrative alternates between two timelines. In 1961, Travers visits California to work with Disney, composers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman), and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) on an approach to Mary Poppins that will satisfy her enough that she'll sign off on the film rights. After all, Disney's company has been courting her for 20 years. Flashbacks to 1906 Australia show Travers as a child (Annie Buckley) with her beloved, alcoholic bank-manager father (Colin Farrell). He's the person who inspired Mr. Banks, the dad of the children Poppins looked after.
The focus at the outset is on light comedy, as Travers fusses over the California weather, her hotel room full of Disney paraphernalia and the proposed casting for the movie. Thompson does her best Generic Disdainful Brit in these scenes. Meanwhile, Hanks does a lovely job making Disney's folksiness and Midwestern dialect feel genuine, and several amusing moments make fine use of the culture clash between the two characters.
The nostalgic glow of the flashback sequences highlights the fact that Travers is still working out some unresolved daddy issues. Far too much time is spent underlining family dynamics that were clear after a couple of scenes. And there's too much emphasis on a scene where Disney cajoles Travers with his insight into her mind and motivations.
Saving Mr. Banks takes a snippet of movie-history trivia and tries to build it into something profound. But the story's sweet aspects taste like medicine, which, as we know from Poppins, isn't always easy to swallow.