Ever since I first heard of it, I dreaded Saving Mr. Banks
, pegging it as a dopey Disney self-congratulations job. A pomade-slicked Tom Hanks would be the hokey, do-no-wrong master of the universe Walt Disney, Emma Thompson would be unreasonably uptight Mary Poppins
author P.L. Travers. Using his trademark Disney charm and whimsy, Walt would break through Travers' defenses, make her see the error of his ways and...
Consent to wild sex with him?
That impossible historical stretch, I figured, was the only hope the movie had of being entertaining in any way. The trailer even played up this possibility, intentionally or not, with a scene in which Disney looks suggestively at Travers and asks her what he'll have to do to get the rights to her book.
The movie doesn't go that way, but it does skew far darker than I ever could have hoped for, and in that way ends up becoming something halfway profound. Although Hanks' Walt is just as much a hagiography as you'd expect, but Thompson has found a spoon-sugared plum of a role in the furiously demented Travers.
What the movie truly turns out to be is a dark flashback-laden biopic on Travers, describing in painful detail how exactly she turned out to be as coarse and brutal a caricature as she turned out to be. Her past was filled with shame, abandonment and disappointment, much of it at the hands of her well-meaning grease fire of a dad, played by Colin Farrell.
Director John Lee Hancock spins the tale with equal doses of Disney charm and indie-flick grit. The movie amuses, terrifies, intrigues and fascinates at nearly every moment, infusing suspense into a story that everyone already knows the happy ending to. After seeing the ugly, painful way the sausage was made, I'll never watch Mary Poppins
the same way again.
Starring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson. Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Directed by John Lee Hancock. 125 minutes. Rated PG-13.