The year is 1961, and Walt Disney is laying his Midwestern charm on P.L. Travers, British author of the beloved children's book "Mary Poppins." Disney has promised his daughters a Poppins movie. "I have never gone back on a promise," he says. "That's what being a daddy is all about."
Her response is surprisingly hostile: "Is it?"
"Saving Mr. Banks," starring Emma Thompson as the brittle Travers and Tom Hanks as a shrewd Disney, throws a delightful glass of ice water onto the heartwarming 1964 classic "Mary Poppins." This being a Disney movie about a Disney movie, you can expect your cockles to fire up again by the end. But the fun of "Saving Mr. Banks" lies in discovering that the woman who created the flying nanny immortalized by Julie Andrews on film was, herself, something closer to Cruella De Vil.
It's a fascinating story in which Travers, after stalling Walt for 20 years, shows up in California to talk turkey. She's rude to her chauffeur, Ralph (an adorable Paul Giamatti), and appalled by songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), who keep churning out childish tripe like "Chim Chim Cher-ee." She won't allow animation (not even those penguins who dance around Dick Van Dyke) or, for some reason, the color red. "You don't know what she means to me," Travers tells Disney of her fictional creation.
It turns out Travers is sitting on a childhood full of emotional pain, much of it stemming from her alcoholic father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell). Through flashbacks, "Saving Mr. Banks" tells this story as well, connecting the psychological dots between the real father and the one that Poppins fans know as George Banks. It doesn't always work, partly because director John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") forces the issue with superficial visual cues between past and present.
What makes "Saving Mr. Banks" work is Thompson in a wonderful, nuanced performance that walks a fine line between villain and heroine. For comparison, stay during the credits to hear an audio recording of the real P.L. Travers bullying the Disney filmmakers. You'll marvel that "Mary Poppins" ever got made.
PLOT The true story of how a cantankerous P.L. Travers nearly derailed Walt Disney's 1964 adaptation of her novel "Mary Poppins."
RATING PG-13 (adult themes)
CAST Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti
BOTTOM LINE This glimpse behind the Disney curtain is no exposé, but the rich details and gold- standard performances outweigh the easy sentiments.
MOVIES ABOUT THE MAKING OF FAMOUS MOVIES
"Saving Mr. Banks," about the rough road to get "Mary Poppins" to the screen, is the latest film to prove that behind-the-scenes drama on the set can be as compelling as the actual film. Here are four other movies about the making of a famous movie.
ED WOOD (1994) -- Tim Burton's biography of the cross-dressing director whose taste in movies was as bad as his taste in fashion really shines when re-creating scenes from "Plan 9 From Outer Space," often cited as the worst film ever made.
RKO 281 (1999) -- Liev Schreiber played boy wonder Orson Welles in this account of the making of Welles' masterpiece, "Citizen Kane," and publisher William Randolph Hearst's campaign to destroy the thinly veiled screen version of his life.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011) -- Although much of this movie about the making of Marilyn Monroe's 1957 comedy, "The Prince and the Showgirl," focuses on her infatuation with a young film student, the real sparks come from the tension between Monroe (Michelle Williams) and her director and co-star, Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh).
HITCHCOCK (2012) -- Anthony Hopkins starred as the master of suspense in this biographical tale of Hitch's struggles -- from showing a toilet to the brutal shower scene -- during the filming of "Psycho."
-- Daniel Bubbeo