In 1961, the persistent and patient agent of P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) finally convinces the bestselling children's book author to travel from London to Hollywood to discuss signing over the film rights to her book Mary Poppins. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has been trying to meet with her for 20 years after promising his children he'd make a movie of the book.
Travers is a very persnickety woman who has developed an armor around herself to keep from being hurt. Through flashbacks to 1906 in Australia, we learn of her close relationship with her father, Robert Goff Travers (Colin Farrell), who spends more time with her than with his wife (Ruth Wilson) or two other daughters. Travers tutors her in escaping from the real world into adventuresome realms created by her imagination. He is a dreamer who has been fired several times. He drinks heavily to obliterate his disappointment with his job as a bank manager.
On the trip to California, we see what a difficult person Travers is in a revealing scene where she rebuffs a stewardess who wants to help her with her bag that won't fit in the upper storage compartment. A woman with a child, out of kindness, volunteers to let the stewardess take her bag to another location. Instead of thanking her, this writer says: "I hope your baby isn't going to be a nuisance."
Travers is picked up at the airport by Ralph (Paul Giamatti). He cheerfully welcomes her to Los Angeles; her response is to note that the air outside the terminal smells like a mixture of "chlorine and sweat." Arriving at a posh Beverly Hills hotel, Travers is appalled to find her room filled with fruit, Disney stuffed animals, and other odds and ends. She puts them all away in a closet except for the large Mickey Mouse doll which she faces toward the wall, saying, "You stay there until you learn the art of subtlety."
At the Disney Studios, Travers is warmly greeted by Disney whose face grows radiant as he complements her for setting his imagination on fire with her story. She is not pleased when he adds that he has high hopes that the film of Mary Poppins will reach a larger audience than the book. Travers agrees to meet with the screenplay writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the song-writing team of Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak). She wants no whimsy on the screen and even forbids Disney from using the color red in the story. She says that any animation in the film will be a deal-breaker.
Although Travers as a child was increasingly disturbed by her father's self-destructive alcoholism, she remembers the day when he told her:"Don't ever stop dreaming, you can be anyone." And she responds: "I want to be just like you." So for years, even after his rejection of a poem she wrote for him when he was sick, Travers has kept him alive in her heart and refused to let him go.
Saving Mr. Banks is directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) who has assembled an outstanding cast who are near perfect in their performances. Look for the picture, Tom Hanks, and Emma Thompson to all receive Academy Award nominations. The top-notch screenplay is a gem filled with a potpourri of funny lines, warm emotions, and several speeches that touch the heart.
Tom Hanks's folksy depiction of Walt Disney comes across as genuine and his closing scenes are done with a tenderness and grace that only this veteran actor could bring to them. We also tip our hats to Paul Giamatti who does wonders with the small role of a humble driver who plays his part in breaking through Travers's armor and sharing several moments of genuine friendship with her.
Emma Thompson as Travers has never been better as she spits out barbs and zingers in her efforts to control every situation. Yet seeing the story of her childhood, we have empathy for her. We can understand her obsession with protecting her well-loved characters under all the pressure to give the story a chance to do its wonders on a larger stage. We find ourselves cheering for her as she slowly opens her clenched fists and reaches out to others. Saving Mr. Banks shows the tenderizing of a critical and persnickety writer.
Special features on the DVD include a deleted scene — "Nanny Song."