George Banks, the father figure in "Mary Poppins," is just one of the many things being saved in "Saving Mr. Banks." The Disney film adaptation of the book – after 20 years of being thwarted by its protective author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) – is another, and with it, the promise Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) made to his daughters to make the movie. But the main focus of all the salvation is on Mrs. Travers herself, who must overcome long-held guilt wrought by her troubled childhood, which is causing her to hold on to her precious literary creation ever so tightly. The well-acted if predictable "Saving Mr. Banks" is a crowd pleaser, presenting the tug-of-war behind the making of the 1964 Disney classic in an amusing, hilarious and ultimately heartfelt fashion. But – especially given the studio behind this presentation of its own history – it still feels like it's playing in all the fantasy of a Disney theme park.
When we meet Mrs. Travers (the name she prefers to go by in the film) in 1961 London, the fortune her Poppins series brought her is running dry. Her accountant (Ronan Vibert) convinces her that she has no choice but to sell the film rights to the book. She agrees on the grounds that she's given full collaboration with the filmmakers. And so it's off to California – where she is met by the cheery Walt (as he likes to be called), his merry band of creative types (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) and a chipper valet (Paul Giamatti), all eager to please her so she'll sign away the book's rights, once and for all.
For all the warmth and joy her literary heroine has brought, Mrs. Travers herself is cold and alienating – the type of woman who asks a mother on a plane whether her baby will be a nuisance and who stuffs the Mickey Mouse gift baskets awaiting her arrival into her hotel closet. She arrives at Disney Studios (filmed at the actual Disney Hollywood backlots, which still well-wear their mid-20th century art deco sheen) with a long list of demands – starting with strict no animation policy and only getting more intractable as the list goes on – fearing that the profit-hungry company will turn her earnest tale into just another saccharine, pandering cartoon-y treat.
The origin of Mrs. Travers' resistance is revealed in a series of flashbacks from her childhood in Australia that carry through the entire film. As a young girl (Annie Rose), she watches her imaginative, loving but deeply-flawed father (Colin Farrell) struggle with alcoholism and holding down a job, while her overburdened mother (Ruth Wilson) watches on helplessly. It's his refusal to come to terms with life's reality that drives Mrs. Travers' distaste for Disney whimsy, and it's in these memories where we also meet her inspiration for Poppins (Rachel Griffiths).
Mrs. Travers is not the only one with daddy issues; Disney's own troubled childhood comes to the forefront (though the real-life Disney had a tendency to take this out on his mother) and "Saving Mr. Banks" works as a meditation on what motivates creators and why they cling to their work. Hanks makes for a delightful Walt, with a twinkle in his eye and constant grin on his face; he can't be blamed for the film's insistence on giving us the sunny posterboard version of the business titan, known to have his dark side.
It's Thompson then who steals the show. She plays up Mrs. Travers' haughty English shtick with many a gasp and squeal. But rather than slip into the aggravating stereotype of the "difficult woman," she emerges as a full-dimensional character, even if charting a very familiar transformation. For all the work the flashbacks do to explain Travers' past, Thompson's face carries its effects effortlessly and perhaps more compellingly. Even when gratingly dismissing the tireless efforts of all those around her, Thompson radiates a passion and a devotion that makes Mrs. Travers impossible to dislike.