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‘Saving Mr. Banks’: A sweet ‘Mary Poppins’ tale that’s practically perfect

‘SAVING MR. BANKS’ ★★★

P.L. Travers | Emma Thompson

Walt Disney | Tom Hanks

Ginty | Annie Rose Buckley

Travers Goff | Colin Farrell

Margaret Goff | Ruth Wilson

Ralph | Paul Giamatti

Don DaGradi | Bradley Whitford

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by John Lee Hancock and written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Running time: 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some unsettling elements). Opens Dec. 20 at local theaters.

Updated: January 21, 2014 6:11AM



Full disclosure: On some occasions in my career, including presently, I have done work for TV programs owned by the Disney Co.

Equally full disclosure, and some of you will shake your umbrellas at me for this one: While I love many things Disney, including any number of motion pictures, “Mary Poppins” never did it for me. I recognize the brilliance of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, and I admire what were some pretty nifty visuals for 1964, but all those obnoxiously sunny tunes such as “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” — no thank you.

So I might not have been as keen to see a movie about the making of “Mary Poppins” than the multiple generations of fans who adore the film. But regardless of whether you can type “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” without even Googling or you’ve never heard of the magical nanny, “Saving Mr. Banks” quite likely might be your cup of tea.

It’s 1961, six years after Disneyland was opened in Anaheim, Calif. The avuncular Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is presiding over an already legendary entertainment empire that continues to expand with great leaps and bounds. (On the wall in Walt’s office is a map of Florida with Orlando circled.) No single project will have too great of an impact on Disney’s bottom line, but Walt is determined to the point of near-obsession to bring P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins” books to the big screen. It’s a promise he made to his girls some 20 years earlier, and Walt doesn’t break promises.

Hanks doesn’t look much like the Walt Disney we know from old black-and-white clips and he doesn’t strive for an imitation, but it feels as if he gets Disney’s folksy, friendly manner as well as his keen business acumen and his willingness to outwork anyone. Walt’s best friend might be a cartoon mouse, and we can see he genuinely cares for his employees and he loves the fans who flock to Disneyland — but there’s little doubt he can be as cutthroat as any cigar-chomping old-school movie mogul.

Emma Thompson is a perfect choice to play the prissy, humorless, snobbish P.L. Travers, who shudders at the very notion of her beloved Mary Poppins and her precious Banks family getting the Hollywood musical treatment. Problem is, royalties aren’t what they used to be, and Travers has to entertain the notion of signing away the rights.

Cue to a scene of Travers boarding a flight from London to Los Angeles, sneering as a woman boards with an infant and asking, “Will the child be a nuisance?”

Oh great. Turns out the creator of Mary Poppins is a tightly wound, lonely, bitter fussbudget. And judging by some of her actions in L.A., she’s borderline nuts.

Director John Lee Hancock (working from a well-structured script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) gives us a stylized and gorgeous version of 1961 Los Angeles. When Paul Giamatti as Ralph the driver extols the glories of another beautiful day in southern California, when Travers oversees the efforts of the screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) to win her over, it feels as if there would be no more exciting place on Earth to be — but Travers still refuses to sign over those rights. Her joylessness is waiting for her each morning when she awakens, and it stays with her all day and night, like a curse from a Disney fairy tale.

In numerous — I thought too many — flashback scenes, we go back to Travers’ girlhood days in Australia. (That’s right, the author of “Mary Poppins” was Australian, and her real name was Helen Lyndon Goff.) As a little girl, even as her family suffered declining misfortunes, little Helen was mesmerized by the wondrous, adventurous ways of her charming but utterly irresponsible father (Colin Farrell). The deeper he sinks into his alcoholism to the point where his wife becomes suicidal with despair, the more we understand how the little girl would idolize and then idealize the nanny who showed up on the doorstep and announced she was there to fix things.

This being a Walt Disney film with one of the most beloved actors of all time playing Walt Disney, it’s no surprise “Saving Mr. Banks” is thoroughly kind to Mr. Disney, who is portrayed as basically the best boss in the world. Thompson has more of a journey to convey, as Mrs. Travers slowly emerges from her shell. (There’s one bit of business involving a giant stuffed Mickey Mouse that’s cute and funny.)

No doubt the real story of Walt Disney’s film-rights courtship of P.L. Travers was much less whimsical and not nearly so tidy. (Travers wrote eight books but never allowed Disney to make another “Poppins” movie. I’m guessing she hated those damn cartoon penguins until the day she died.)

The end-credit photos illustrate the parallels between actual events and the fictionalized version, which is part docudrama, part pure Disney magical storytelling.

This is a lovingly rendered, sweet film.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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