By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
Oh “Saving Mr. Banks,” I’ll be honest — you had me at “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
Critical standards tend to melt when put in proximity of that joyful song from “Mary Poppins,” which turns up about halfway through this new behind-the-scenes Disney production.
This amiable, somewhat whitewashed true story describes the way the already-kinglike Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) finally closed the deal with the author of “Mary Poppins,” the sourpuss British writer P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson).
For 20 years — no kidding — Travers resisted Disney’s offers to adapt her beloved literary character for a movie.
“Saving Mr. Banks” begins in 1961, with Travers journeying to Hollywood, still having not signed away the rights to her story. She sits in a room with a screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman brothers songwriting team (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), as they page through the script. She torpedoes most of their ideas.
This really happened. Travers hated “jollification” and was horrified that Disney was planning an animated sequence for the movie. She was also dead-set against putting songs in it, which is where “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” comes in.
In one giddy scene, her collaborators seduce her into loving the tune as they dance about the studio while Dick Sherman bangs out the music on the piano. (In real life, Travers remained annoyed about the movie, even if she did sign off on it.)
While Hanks does not look or sound like Walt Disney, he catches a foxy, childlike confidence about the man that becomes intriguing to watch. As for Emma Thompson, I have long held that it is hard for her to make a false move, and am glad to report that this is still true.
Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith hedge their bets by including lengthy flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in Australia. Raised by a loving but drunk father (Colin Farrell), Travers evidently had a nanny (Rachel Griffiths) who might’ve been a model for the future Mary Poppins.
This sets up parallels with the fatherly figure of Disney and also the fictional Mr. Banks in “Mary Poppins.” It’s a little too neat, but the charm factor is so high, you might not care.
Plus, director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) has some appreciation for little touches. I don’t know if Disney ever wandered into the studio at night and sat on the piano bench to softly sing along to “Feed the Birds,” but it does peg his little-boy personality — which was likely his strength and his weakness.
Despite the PG-13 rating (really?), this is a Disney movie all the way, soft and sweet. A spoonful of sugar, and no medicine included.
“Saving Mr. Banks” (3 stars)
The author (Emma Thompson) of “Mary Poppins” goes to visit Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in 1961, trying to resist his offers to film her book. You know how that turned out, and the story behind the movie classic is shamelessly charming, despite its flaws.
Rated: PG-13, for language
Showing: Opening Dec. 19 at Adlerwood Mall, Cinebarre, Woodinville.