Saving Mr. Banks
You expect a bit of schmaltz from a movie about the making of Mary Poppins. But schmaltz doesn't entail a sentiment lathered so thickly that it's feels like an anti-depressant commercial, or material so broad that it's insulting to believe that audiences above the age of five can relate to the emotionality onscreen. Saving Mr. Banks takes for granted that its viewers are fans of traditional Disney, seeming to confuse Disney fans for Disney characters, and insinuating that we bear the intellectual sophistication thereof.
The real victim, of course, is the character of P.L. Travers (Emma Roberts, charming as she can be with this material), who incurs a fraction of a storyline about overcoming (or learning to live with?) her latent childhood traumas. As a young girl in Australia (as we learn in intermittent flashbacks - by and large the dullest part of the movie, but such a hefty piece of it), young Travers adored her merry, whimsical alcoholic father (Colin Farrell, playing a character that feels as grounded in reality as Dick Van Dyke's penguin-trotting screever Bert), enchanting in his Neverland mannerisms while her chronically depressed mother watched the family crumble into squalor.
Forty-odd years later, the themes of Travers' childhood inform (sometimes directly, right down to presciently repeated phrases) her resistence to allow her novel Mary Poppins to take form as a Disney movie. In the absence of a reason for why she might have a sudden change of heart about a feeling to which she has apparently held so strongly for two decades, Travers opts to fly out to California to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, wading through the script without any of the energy we know he has in his back pocket) and discuss the adaptation process.
When it's not insisting upon clunky melting the ice queen devices - like nuzzling Travers up to an oversized stuffed Mickey Mouse to show that, hey, she's starting to like this place! - the stubborn author's time in the Disney writer's room is the best part of the movie. Working with (or against) an increasingly agitated creative team made up of Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak, Travers protests minor details about setting and character, driving her colleagues mad in the process. It is to the credit of the comic talents of Whitford and Schwartzman (who play reserved agitation well beside Novak's outright hostility - he's doing mid-series Ryan in this movie, FYI) that these scenes offer a scoop of charm. But Travers' gradual defrosting poses a consistent problem, as it is experienced over the slow reveal of her disjointed backstories in a fashion that suggests the two are connected... but we have no reason to believe that they are.
The implications of the characters' stories - depression, child abuse, alcoholism, handicaps, and PTSD - are big, and worthy of monumental material. But the characters are so thin that the assignment of such issues to them does a disservice to the emotionality and pain inherent therein. A good story might have been found in the making of Mary Poppins, and in the life and work of P.L. Travers. Unfortunately, Saving Mr. Banks is too compelled to turn that arc into a Disney cartoon. And much like Travers herself, we simply cannot abide that.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter