IF ONLY Disney's Saving Mr. Banks had been terrible, I could've screamed, "Damn you, Disneyfication!" from the chim-chimneyed rooftops. But the film is sweet and likeable and not without a bit of an edge. It's a Disney edge, sure, but it's there.
Mr. Banks is centered around Mary Poppins—particularly author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), who's loathe to sell her Mary Poppins books to the animated cryogenic head of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). It's 1961, she's broke, and Disney has been needling her for 20 years for the rights—but Travers knows, deep within her prickly soul, that he's going to put his spin all over her characters. Finally she relents, on the condition that she gets creative control.
Mary Poppins does indeed get the chirpy treatment at the hands of Disney, but Travers is also in the writing room giving scrupulous input: She's a major sourpuss about the whole endeavor, unbending about characters she considers family. Hanks' Disney is genial, but not above kicking back with a highball and chewing the fat about his shitty dad. They're both flawed and human characters—a portrayal that, in Disney's case, is rather surprising.
It's Travers' backstory that's at the heart of Saving Mr. Banks. The film cuts back and forth from 1961 to her childhood in Australia, and I have to imagine the real Travers—if she were indeed so outlandishly grumpy—might've gone stabby at seeing her life laid so bare on screen. It's in these flashbacks that she's revealed as a daddy's girl who watches her beloved father fall to alcoholism and her mother attempt suicide; later, Travers' trip to Hollywood dredges up her sad formative years. It's a slow reveal that makes Saving Mr. Banks neither a spoonful of sugary holiday fare nor a dose of medicine about daddy issues. So yes, Travers' stories—both written and lived—have been schmaltzed up, but consider it a salve that helps ease into the sadder stuff.