It’s a Hollywood legend that Walt Disney felt some sort of malevolent glee in killing Bambi’s mom, and what that animated death would do to the children who saw it. But that’s only a legend.
P.L. Travers, the woman who wrote the glorious “Mary Poppins,” was a brittle, snobbish martinet and a humorless control freak. And that’s a fact. Stay through the credits of “Saving Mr. Banks” and hear for yourself.
Emma Thompson brings Travers to prickly life in “Saving Mr. Banks,” Disney’s amusingly testy and emotionally rich telling of Walt Disney’s courtly struggles with the dismissive writer as he and his dream factory turned her “Mary Poppins” into one of the most beloved children’s musicals ever.
The courtship — Tom Hanks plays patient, long-suffering Disney — is not an easy one. She is in the habit of barging into the movie /TV/theme park mogul’s office. He is all charm and informality. He calls her “Pam.”
We meet Travers in London, her agent telling her she needs the money and must finally sell the screen rights to her most famous book.
Travers flies to Los Angeles and disapproves — of everything. The flight, the scent in the air, the hotel.
Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) keeps this courtship center stage, and tells the story of Walt figuring out why Travers (real name, Helen Lyndon Goff) is the way she is and what he can do to make this unpleasant and miserable woman happy. That discovery is in the film’s many flashbacks, to young Helen Goff’s childhood in rural Australia, where her overwhelmed, worried mother (Ruth Wilson) was dependent on Helen’s father (Colin Farrell, very good), a drinking banker who would rather play with his kids than show up for work.
Hanks wears Walt’s moustache and comfortingly plays Walt’s Midwestern drawl (and smoker’s cough). Thompson plays Travers as a fairy godmother who has given up the sweet act to show her Cruella De Vil side. She is hilariously unpleasant, downright rude. But we, like Walt and her Disney-provided driver (Paul Giamatti), can sense that it’s all an act and that this pose has deep-rooted, painful underpinnings. It’s a great performance and an exclamation point on Thompson’s career.