Joseph Belanger’s review published on Letterboxd:
Once upon a time, an aging children’s book author went to war with a multimedia mogul over a fictional character that she had created and that he wanted badly to have for himself. It surely was not the first time this happened and it has surely happened several times since. People are possessive of their creations, reluctant to allow others to appropriate them as their own. This is especially true when that character is created specifically to help dig someone out of despair. When this happens, the character can take on a life of their own and assume the role of saviour in the author’s life. Mary Poppins is one such character for author, P.L. Travers, and her reluctance to hand her over to Walt Disney is legendary in the industry. The journey to bring everyone’s favourite flying nanny to the screen is now the basis of a new film, SAVING MR. BANKS and now, we too, can know just how close we came to never knowing the joy of a jolly holiday with Mary.
The only reason Travers (Emma Tompson) is considering giving up her creation to Disney (Tom Hanks) is because she needs the money. Walt has got plenty of that to go around but her fear is that her beloved Mary will be Disney-fied beyond recognition. No singing! No animation! No Dick Van Dyke! These are just a few of her many demands. Now, anyone who has seen the now 50-year-old MARY POPPINS knows Travers had to have caved on all of these points and them some but why? How did Walt break down her resolve, and let me tell you, when you meet Thompson’s Travers, you will know the true meaning of resolve. It isn’t Walt that is holding her back though; it is Travers herself and her inability to find peace for her past, a past that inspired her heroine, and a past that she has been running from her entire life. This past is shown to us in flashback after flashback (after flashback!), in which we learn that her father (Colin Farrell) was a bank manager (just like the father in the book) and that he had a serious problem with alcohol. We also learn that despite his shortcomings, she loved her daddy more than anything in the world.
Given that Disney honours and practically exploits all things youthful and that Travers abhors anything that reminds her of her own childhood, converting her book into a film that is meant to delight children the world over is not a simple process. As she steamrolls through the script, questioning details as little as whether EXT should just say Exterior, and butts heads with the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak) over every lyrical suggestion, she is constantly grappling with her past. Thompson is tightly wound, anxious, hesitant and sour at most times but Thompson plays her so completely that it is easy to see that all of this facade is strictly for her own protection. Her vulnerability and fear are so terribly endearing that it is impossible not to love her no matter how hard she pushes you not to. Walt suspects there is more to her resistance of him as well and, instead of pushing her into making decisions she will not be comfortable with, he struggles to understand where she is coming from. I suspect the real negotiations were not nearly as rosy but at least this version allows these two veteran actors to shine in ways neither has for some time.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, the man behind the crowd pleasing, THE BLIND SIDE, SAVING MR. BANKS does away with most traces of subtlety and may be too saccharine for some, which is ironic for a film about keeping Disney idealism out of the picture. While it may be cramming its point down the audience’s throat at times, it does so with an often delightful and charming spoonful of sugar so it’s still a joy to swallow what’s being sold. If you’re not adverse to a little pixie dust here and there, then SAVING MR. BANKS may just save that little kid inside of you too.