There's biopics and then there's sort-of-biopics which don't exactly go through a person's entire life's work but which instead focus on one specific, iconic event. Think Capote, Hitchcock or, more recently, Saving Mr. Banks: a look at how Walt Disney obtained the rights to Mary Poppins from the story's writer P. L. Travers.
This one isn't even really a making-of movie as we see none of the filming for Mary Poppins or (wisely) meet any weird Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke lookalikes. Saving Mr. Banks limits itself to a few recording sessions with Travers (Emma Thompson) and The Sherman Brothers, who came up with all of the film's catchy songs, intercut with flashbacks depicting some of the writer's early life and conversations she had with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) as well as Paul Giamatti's chatty driver. Finding out why Travers resisted Disney's offers to buy the movie rights to Poppins for so long and why Disney was this insistent makes for an interesting premise. Mary Poppins being a very personal story for both but for slightly different reasons. It's also pretty fun to see The Sherman Brothers at work coming up with the hugely memorable melodies and choruses for the likes of "A Spoonful Of Sugar" or "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", even if many of those tunes haven't aged all that well.
That "I Love To Laugh" track is brutal.
Don't worry: this movie thankfully ignores it.
The cast is charming and the film definitely has its moments. The ending, for example, is appropriately moving and should leave you wanting to not only read Travers' original novel but re-watch the film AND book some tickets for Disneyland. Unfortunately, the film loses some credibility by being much too whimsical and forced in places. The performances in the film aren't exactly subtle as the actors try maybe a little too hard to be cute at times and the script can get a bit heavy-handed with those flashbacks. The main problem, really, is that the film doesn't go beyond showing us that both Disney and Travers had daddy issues. By the end, it's still unclear why Mary Poppins exists as a character and how parts of the musical fit into both Disney and Travers' lives. It doesn't help that the flashback scenes, in which Colin Farrell plays Travers' father, feel so melodramatic and overdone.
All that said, Saving Mr. Banks remains an entertaining, harmless and likeable watch which Disney fans should appreciate. Its heart's in the right place even if its spoonful of cheese makes the medicine hard to go down at times.
Sweet if underwritten.