Director: John Lee Hancock; Screenwriters: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith; Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti; Running time: 125 mins; Certificate: PG
"Mary Poppins is the very enemy of sentiment and whimsy, she doesn't sugarcoat the darkness," bellows PL Travers (Emma Thompson) to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) during a script meeting as the House of Mouse tries to put together an all-singing, all-penguin-dancing version of the author's beloved novel.
Creative tension between Hollywood and writers is nothing new - Stephen King famously despised Stanley Kubrick's The Shining adaptation, while Alan Moore became so frustrated with movies based on his work he requested his name be removed from the credits entirely.
Saving Mr Banks peels back the curtain to go behind the scenes on the making of Disney's 1964 classic Mary Poppins. For Walt Disney, making a film out of this book represents a two-decade quest to fulfil a promise he made to his daughters, but for Travers the fear of a film mangling her work causes her to belligerently dig in her heels. She only relents after her agent highlights her dwindling finances and she's granted script approval.
The adult Travers is brilliantly played by Emma Thompson, whose Nanny McPhee films clearly suggest someone with much affection for Poppins. She portrays a combative old battleaxe who gives Disney, scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) nightmares with her demands. There must be no animation, no singing, no Dick Van Dyke, Mr Banks must not have a moustache... and on and on.
Hancock mines this conflict for comedy - the enthusiastic, open-minded Americans are pitted against the ever-so-British traditionalist, and it's through Hanks's avuncular Disney that the film is able to get to the heart of the matter. Travers's own upbringing was the inspiration for her book, her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths) is the spitting image of Mary Poppins and her own father the inspiration for George Banks. These characters are like family to Travers, and she doesn't want them mistreated.
The scenes that flashback to Australia never quite click as well as those set in the '60s - you can feel the emotional buttons being pushed as Farrell's Robert Travers battles with booze and matriarch Margaret Goff (Ruth Wilson) struggles with looking after the kids while he's away. It all plays out like a soapy melodrama, and jars slightly with the tone of the frothier comedy of the rest of the film. Still, Farrell makes a better fist of an English accent than Van Dyke!
The film really belongs to Thompson and Hanks, whose relationship is elegantly observed by Marcel and Smith's script. Oscar nominations are almost assured, and this is the kind of warm-blanket drama that could prosper in awards season. In the best tradition of Disney, it is a film to make you laugh and cry.