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posted: 12/12/2013 5:00 AM

Fact-based comic drama poppin' with merry tale of seduction

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  • Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) treats "Mary Poppins" novelist P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to a day at Disneyland in "Saving Mr. Banks."

    Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) treats "Mary Poppins" novelist P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to a day at Disneyland in "Saving Mr. Banks."

  • Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) attempts to seduce "Mary Poppins" novelist P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) into forking over movie rights in "Saving Mr. Banks."

    Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) attempts to seduce "Mary Poppins" novelist P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) into forking over movie rights in "Saving Mr. Banks."


On the surface, there would appear to be no greater kindred spirits than Walt Disney and "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers.

No one understood the power of fantasy to heal the wounds of childhood trauma better than she.

No one understood how to tell fantasies that heal the wounds of childhood trauma better than he.

It makes perfect sense that Travers and Disney partner up. Eventually, they would.

When Disney's daughters were very young, he promised them he'd make a movie out of their loved "Mary Poppins" book. He didn't figure on Travers being so passionately guarded about her creation that she wouldn't let anyone have the rights to it.

So, Walt Disney began his unexpected journey, one that lasted two decades until he finally persuaded Travers (whose cash-strapped situation might have influenced her) to come to Disneyland in 1961 and see just what the filmmakers had in mind for her flying nanny.

This crowd-pleasing comic drama tells the story of that meeting, although this movie has the wrong title. "Saving Mr. Banks" sounds like one of those generic, gerund-fueled names ("Saving Private Ryan," "Finding Nemo") selected by committee.

A more honest title for this film would be "The Seduction of P.L. Travers," because it's all about Disney's subtle and less-than-subtle mission to wrench those movie rights from the author's cold-clenched fingers come heck or high water from the sorcerer's apprentice's buckets.

Tom Hanks plays the Chicago-born Disney as an avuncular everyman with a poor excuse for a mustache. Hanks doesn't try to imitate Disney's voice or demeanor, and his general take on the character suffices. But Disney doesn't even appear right away.

"Saving Mr. Banks" opens in Australia around 1906 when Travers was a little girl named Helen (Annie Rose) enamored by her carefree father (Colin Farrell in top form) who would rather drink and spin fantastic tales to his daughter than become a responsible adult. Her mom (Ruth Wilson) loves her dad, but clearly the burden of his behavior weighs on her.

Next, we see the 1961 version of Helen, author P.L. Travers, played with perfect reservation and a touch of something mysterious by the great Emma Thompson. She reluctantly makes the trek to California, whereupon she meets a gregarious limo driver (Paul Giamatti) clearly clued into Disney's desire to keep the novelistzippety-do-dah happy.

It doesn't bode well, for Travers becomes instantly offended by the stuffed toys in her hotel room and sets out to dispose of them.

Meanwhile, the sibling music writing team of Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J., Novak) has already whipped up early samples of the songs to be included in the proposed movie, unaware that Travers apparently has no sense of humor or tolerance for the blasphemy of made-ups words. (Better scrap that "Supercali---whatever" song.)

"Saving Mr. Banks," written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, cleverly alternates between 1961 and Helen's youth, enabling us to gather clues to Travers' possessiveness, and how death, attempted suicide and the arrival of her stern nanny aunt (Rachel Griffiths) shaped the young girl's view of the world and herself.

Back in 1961, Disney and his frustrated staff turn comically nervous cartwheels for the author, for whom nothing and nobody seems good enough for her approval.

The real Travers hated the idea of Dick Van Dyke as the chimney sweep, and so loathed the final production of "Mary Poppins" that she never allowed a sequel or any other works to be based on her characters.

This movie offers us a slightly happier, emo finale.

"You have seduced me!" Travers tells Disney after she signs over the film rights.

Yes, he did, and in the grandest style imaginable. Uncle Walt used charm and money. When those didn't work, he employed, gently, psychological warfare to get what he wanted to fulfill a father's pledge to his daughters.

And now, how he seduced her has become the basis for a Disneyized, heart-rending movie that seduces us all.

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