If you, like me, are the sort who gets a delicious chill down your spine upon hearing the whispered words “Wind’s in the east, mist coming in / Like something’s a-brewing, about to begin …,” well, “Saving Mr. Banks” just might be the movie for you. John Lee Hancock’s wistful comedy is a valentine to “Mary Poppins”; a sweetened story of how the movie came to be made in prickly collaboration between author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and an ever-grinning creative team.
We all know how the story ends: “Mary Poppins” was released in 1964, and it’s practically perfect in every way. (Except maybe Dick Van Dyke’s British accent.) Behind the scenes, things were less cheery: Travers, who for decades resisted selling screen rights to her 1934 book “Mary Poppins,” was determined to maintain the spirit of her work, and flew to Hollywood for meetings with Disney and his team. (Among her many, many notes on the script: It should be “Let’s go and fly a kite,” not “Let’s go fly a kite.”)
“Saving Mr. Banks” unfolds as two simultaneous stories: Travers in Hollywood, a strange Wonderland where she feels lonely and out of her depth, but nonetheless adamant; and Travers’ unstable childhood in Australia, with a ridiculously charming but hard-drinking, ne’er-do-well father (Colin Farrell, eyes a-twinkle).
The flashbacks are pretty and often moving, but it’s Thompson’s ramrod-straight Travers that we keep wanting the movie to return to: a woman who’s often insufferable (and knows it), but who has fallen in love with her own creation — whose origins, we learn, come from a figure in her past — and is desperate to protect her.
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Nobody plays huffy like Thompson, who seems to sniff with her entire body; she’s wonderfully funny against Hanks’ effusive Disney. (“I could just eat you!” he says warmly upon their first meeting. She, unsmiling: “That wouldn’t be appropriate.”)
Travers’ real story, and her ultimate response to the “Mary Poppins” movie, is somewhat more complicated than that depicted here. Hancock (“The Blind Side”) wants to tell a tidier, prettier version, and does so. But “Saving Mr. Banks,” both due to its irresistible subject matter and its masterful cast, holds more magic than most movies this holiday season. See it, then go home and watch “Mary Poppins” again — you know you’ll want to.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org