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Movie Review: Cranky ‘Mary Poppins’ creator wonderfully wooed in ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

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‘Saving Mr. Banks’

★★★ ½

The sugar, fortunately, is limited to a smallish spoonful in this surprisingly combative, but nonetheless charming, funny and moving tale of Walt Disney’s attempts to woo reluctant author P.L. Travers for the rights to “Mary Poppins.”

Make that extremely reluctant, if not downright hostile.

Emma Thompson is spit-spot-on as the very proper, very frosty Travers, who has rebuffed Disney’s efforts for 20 years, fearing he’ll have her creation “cavorting and twinkling.” Sales of “Mary Poppins” have been dwindling by the early ‘60s, however, so to save her beloved home in London she unhappily agrees to fly to L.A. and hear Disney’s production plans. With the understanding that she will retain complete script approval and that there will be no twinkling, cavorting, chirping or prancing. No singing either, if she can help it, but absolutely no “silly cartoons” whatsoever.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is Thompson’s movie, no doubt about it, and she makes the most of every opportunity in the witty script to deliver acerbically withering put-downs — while gradually revealing a deeply buried soft spot, of course. A transition that’s accomplished with perhaps a few too many flashbacks to Travers’ (born Helen Goff) impoverished Australian childhood and traumas associated with her loving, but alcoholic and hopelessly irresponsible father (Colin Farrell). Many of them secretly encoded in “Mary Poppins.”

It was as inevitable that Mr. Banks (the “Poppins” character based on Travers’ father) would eventually turn to sentiment as it was that Tom Hanks would portray Disney in idealized Uncle Walt mode (this being a Disney production). Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) stops short of schmaltz, though, despite the somewhat touchy-feely scene in which Disney finally gets Travers to sign on the dotted line. A bit of sentiment seems appropriate under the circumstances, though. Who doesn’t have at least some small measure of affection for Disney’s “Mary Poppins”? And who isn’t going to be at least a little delighted to see its heartfelt cheeriness prevail over curmudgeonly cynicism?

Whether or not there’s any truth in things working out that way seems kind of beside the point. The only thing we know for certain is that Travers does indeed seem to have been fairly insufferable (stay during the credits to hear her haughty remarks in production meetings she insisted on having recorded). And running out of money seems a perfectly plausible motive for her to finally change her mind about a movie version. But it’s so much more satisfying to watch her slowly, grudgingly being won over. Particularly by those iconic songs as they’re pitched, workshop-fashion, by the great Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak).

It’s hard to imagine anyone not being swept away by “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” — even P.L. Travers herself.

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