A creative dispute between a writer and a studio head over the direction of a prospective motion picture sounds like the kind of movie scenario only a lawyer could love.
But when the writer is cranky, crusty P.L. Travers, who means it when she says "I shall have my way," when the studio head is Walt Disney, unapologetic about proclaiming "I'm a man who usually gets what he wants," and when the film they're arguing about is the much beloved "Mary Poppins," things do get interesting.
Directed down the middle of the road by John Lee Hancock, "Saving Mr. Banks" has even more disadvantages to overcome. For one thing, how do you make an involving film about a situation whose outcome — Travers acquiesced, the film got made — everyone knows?
And, just as tricky, how do you make a genial Disney film, the kind that even Walt himself might have enjoyed, about a way-ornery woman going through one of the most difficult periods of her life?
Making all that happen is a savvy script that sticks to the truth only when it needs to and an actress who gives a gleeful, ripsnorter of a performance. If you've enjoyed Emma Thompson in anything, and even if you haven't, seeing her in this is a must. Though Tom Hanks as Uncle Walt is Thompson's nominal costar, her work is so potent it turns even this strong actor into essentially a supporting player.
The "Mr. Banks" script, written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is at its best giving Thompson's Travers the most savagely funny of retorts and ripostes. This is the kind of dismissive woman who point-blank asks a mother she meets on an airplane, "Will the child be a nuisance?" and informs a hotel bellman who offers to help her unpack, "If it's your ambition to handle ladies' garments, may I suggest you take employment in a launderette." And she's only getting warmed up.
The biggest part of the action in "Mr. Banks" deals with those weeks in 1961 when Travers, in serious financial trouble and considering selling the "Poppins" rights to Disney, came to Los Angeles to have intense script meetings with the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). Marcel and Smith have structured the film to go back and forth between that period and the Australian childhood of Helen Goff (newcomer Annie Rose Buckley), the girl who grew up to become P.L. Travers.
The script shares the conceit of many Travers biographers that the idea for Mary Poppins and her interaction with the Banks family came out of Goff's childhood. But it goes further and posits that the battles the adult P.L. Travers had with Team Disney occurred because working on the film brought up unresolved issues from her past, a situation the "Saving Mr. Banks" title directly references.
With Colin Farrell as Goff's charming and charismatic but also feckless and alcoholic father, Trevor Goff, Ruth Wilson as her overmatched mother, Margaret, and the always welcome Rachel Griffiths as Margaret's sister, Aunt Ellie, "Saving Mr. Banks" invests considerable acting talent in this flashback part of the story, with uneven results.
With Hancock — responsible for the honestly sentimental "The Rookie" as well as the overly sentimental "The Blind Side" — at the helm, the soft direction "Saving Mr. Banks" is headed is a given. The film alternates between hitting the emotions just right when Thompson is on screen in the present and pushing them too insistently in the past when she is not.
From the first glimpse of Travers in her London sitting room, we can tell she is going to be trouble in Hollywood. Anyone with a copy of a book by Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff on her coffee table is not going to see eye to eye with Walt Disney.
Travers has in fact been resisting, for close to two decades, Disney's entreaties, motivated by a promise he made to his daughters, to sell him the Mary Poppins movie rights. But now, much against her will, she is willing to at least take a trip to California to see what's on Walt's mind.
To say that every absurd and vulgar thing about Los Angeles, from its sunshine to its cheery optimism, makes Travers increasingly ill is, if anything, to understate the extent to which all she experiences horrifies her.
What happens at Disney really is the nadir for Travers. She hates the idea of Mary Poppins as a musical ("These books do not lend themselves to chirping and prancing," she huffs); blanches when Dick Van Dyke is identified as "one of the greats," an appellation she reserves for Olivier and Guinness, and dismisses Disneyland as "a dollar-printing machine." And she only barely tolerates Ralph (Paul Giamatti), the salt-of-the-earth chauffeur provided by the studio.
"Saving Mr. Banks" does not strictly hew to the historical record where the eventual resolution of this conflict is concerned, but it is easy to accept this fictionalizing as part of the price to be paid for Thompson's engaging performance. The film has the grace to end with a snippet of an audiotape recording of the actual barbed meetings between Travers and the Shermans, proof if we need it that those battles were as royal as they seem.
'Saving Mr. Banks'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some unsettling images
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times