The film based on reality is never real. For better or worse, it flatters its makers and serves the audience's demands for revised histories, since actual events never turn out as satisfyingly as we'd like. Loose ends, lingering resentments, outcomes that lack third act punch or a third act at all, that's how life works. Movies need -- to steal a line from the Sherman Brothers -- a spoonful of sugar. So here's a five pound bag to the rescue for this re-creation of that time when Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers refused to sell the rights to her book to Walt Disney.
She gave in eventually, resulting in one of Disney's best-loved films. And like an oracle foretelling the liberties this film takes with Hollywood history, that singing, dancing, upbeat Mary Poppins resembled the original book's stern governess about as much as Harry resembles Prince Charles. Saving Mr. Banks adapts something somewhat related to P.L. Travers and turns it into a fantastical retelling of events. You cool with that? No? Sorry, cuteness has to win. Because because.
It's an adorable, falsehood-based venture, one where Travers (Emma Thompson, impeccable from her tightly-coiled matron-hair to her sensible shoes) has unresolved Daddy issues. She grew up in Australia with a father (Colin Farrell) who adored her, goofing off from work, and The Drink, not necessarily in that order. Naturally, this informs her writing but doesn’t heal her lingering emotional scars: she’s controlling, difficult, imperious and misanthropic, bad things that can find their only solace and rearrangement in the gentle, magic-making hands of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, pouring on gallons of Best Dude Ever, something he can do in his sleep). The stubborn author resists everything like the always-on-guard child of an alcoholic she is. Casual Southern California social mores, the music of the Sherman Brothers, the gaudy charms of Disneyland, the endless trays of sweet treats brought into the rehearsal room on the Disney Studios lot, none of it will sway her into allowing her intensely personal creation the chance to sing and dance with cartoon penguins and Dick Van Dyke. But you know where this is going. There’s no other option in a Disney film about how great Disney is.
And that’s… all right? Under normal circumstances no, of course not. When real people part company unhappily (as Disney and Travers did) it becomes impossible to make a movie about it, at least one with a warm-hearted resolution. So a new ending is needed, a legend where one never existed, something to match the comfort and joy millions of people have gotten from both Travers’ books and the Julie Andrews-starring adaptation, the ending that would have been if Disney had written it.
As fiction, it’s still problematic. Walt, here (and possibly in person, as well, who knows) is a little too fond of mansplaining the power of art to a lady-artist, bullying a woman not fond of change or being told what to think. But this Walt and the fairy tale he’s part of do their jobs with increasingly powerful and therapeutic results (never happened), the new, improved, malleable Emma Thompson Travers finds herself weeping cathartic tears (nope), and you might reach for a tissue yourself as you give in to this tissue of lies. At one point in the action, Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak), exasperated by Travers’ blunt rejection of every planned plot detail and song note, asks, “Does it matter?” You’ll have to ask yourself the same thing and provide your own answer, based on your needs for accuracy or desires to dance with cartoon penguins.