A spoonful of sugar and all the cheap sentiment and facile whimsy it represents are precisely what author P.L. Travers abhors in "Saving Mr. Banks," a richly rendered, engrossing dramatization of Walt Disney's efforts to adapt Travers' novel "Mary Poppins" into one of his confectionery extravaganzas.
Played by Emma Thompson in a deliciously brittle turn, Travers emerges in the film as a humorless, imperious, unfailingly prim martinet, who when she arrives at the Disney studios in 1961 to collaborate on the script, insists that everyone — even Uncle Walt — address her as "Mrs. Travers."
Reluctant to hand over Mary Poppins — never just "Mary," please — Travers wages a two-week war of attrition on the screenwriter and composers assigned to bring the magical governess to the screen, wearing the boys down with constant criticisms and suggestions, all to keep her most cherished creation from becoming yet another casualty of Disney-fication, "cavorting, twinkling . . . careening toward a happy ending like a kamikaze."
Thompson, her perfectly powdered face topped with a crown of angry curls, her mouth carefully drawn into a disapproving crimson grimace, tucks into such succulent dialogue with relish, dousing every line with an extra drop of vinegar for acidic good measure. The irresistible force to her unmovable object is Tom Hanks, whose Walt Disney is all soft-spoken Midwestern manipulation, unctuous and shrewd in equal parts.
Unimpressed by the balloons and Mickey Mouse plush toys that greet her at the Beverly Hills Hotel, "positively sickened" by the prospect of visiting Disneyland, bored by California (Los Angeles smells of "chlorine and sweat," she announces upon her arrival at the airport), Travers' steady state of rankled indignation is impervious to Disney's cajoling and flattery. To paraphrase a flinty sister-under-the-skin, albeit from another era, the lady's not for turning — on one of Disney's carousels, or otherwise.