Saving Mr. Banks is the second Disney movie this year about an isolated, lonely, emotionally crippled woman whose cold heart is eventually thawed by love.
In this case, the snow queen is P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson). She isn't royalty, but she has been getting her way for so long that she no longer knows how to connect with people emotionally—least of all the very charming, very American, very emotionally seductive Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). As the film opens, Travers has been rebuffing Disney's attempts to buy the rights to her novel, Mary Poppins. Broke and unwilling (or unable) to write more, she agrees to hear him out, hoping against hope that she will somehow be able to cash his check and yet maintain creative control over her characters.
As the film progresses, its story splits into two threads. As Travers terrorizes Disney's team of creators and rebuffs his overtures of friendship, flashbacks take us through her childhood in Australia. Through them, we learn the supposed inspirations for Mary Poppins. And we may come to understand why she's so attached to story details that at first seemed arbitrary or insignificant.
On paper, the film has all the elements of a smash. Disney (the studio) has mimicked Disney (the film's character) by sparing no expense to assemble a top tier creative team. You know your cast is outstanding when Emma Thompson's performance is the most bland.
Then again, Disney (the studio), like Disney (the film's character), has stacked the deck against her.
It's not enough that Travers is relentlessly rude to Disney himself—maligning his theme park and insulting his films. She commits the cardinal sin of all American movies: she is rude to the little people. She lambastes chauffer Ralph (Paul Giamatti) for daring to bring her tea in a paper cup, for asking about her family, for asking about the weather. "What's wrong with his leg?" she sniffs as one of the Sherman brothers limps out of the room she has exiled him from. When told that "he was shot," Travers doubles down with another snippy retort.
Sure: the backstory tells us that Travers has been hardened by suffering. But so, too, has Walt. The film's heart and soul is in the four or five conversations between the two artists—she with her insistence that children must (as she did) face the hard facts of life, he with his belief that everyone should (as he did) transform the pain into happiness with a can-do attitude and a little revisionist history. It is also undeniably true that nearly every fear Travers has about what Disney will do to her beloved story is realized . . . and that once he has control, the gentle old man gives way to a more calculating businessman.
It's hard not to forgive him, though, when the film includes a scene (apparently somewhat apocryphal) of Travers sobbing while watching the film and Disney assuring her that everything will be okay for her projected father figure. It's not enough for the film that Disney gets his way—he has to be vindicated.