Emma Thompson gives a complex, deeply moving and wildly funny performance as author P.L. Travers in John Lee Hancock’s delightful Saving Mr. Banks, a new film about Walt Disney’s attempts to get the rights to Mary Poppins from the book’s prickly author. While Travers was notoriously resistant to Disney’s charms, turning down his requests for 20 years (“Mary Poppins is not for sale! I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons!”), by 1961 her financial problems were so dire that she could no longer ignore Walt’s interest. When the film opens, the author, still holding out, finally agrees to spend a few weeks at Disney Studios to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his creative team including screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman Brothers (perfectly portrayed by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). In an unprecedented concession, Walt gives Mrs. Travers the power to veto anything she doesn’t like about the proposed film, which at first is every bleedin’ thing.

Saving Mr. Banks is not about the actual making of Mary Poppins — most of the film takes place several years before cameras rolled on that beloved classic. But it is a hugely entertaining if somewhat-fantasized glimpse into the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the Oscar-winning movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. The film incudes extended flashback scenes of Travers’ difficult childhood in Australia when her name was Helen Goff. It is through these poignant scenes with the young Helen (Annie Rose Buckley), her doting but troubled father Travers (Colin Farrell) and her struggling mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson) that we begin to understand why the author is so fiercely attached to the character she would later create. When Margaret’s sister, Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), appears on the scene to help the family through a life-changing crisis, we learn that she is, in fact, the inspiration for the no-nonsense nanny of Travers’ books.

Back in Los Angeles, beautifully recreated by production designer Michael Corenblith in Mad Men-era splendor, Mrs. Travers endures the intrusions of her kindly Disney-appointed driver Ralph (a fictional character winningly played by Paul Giamatti) as she continues to exasperate everyone at the studio including Walt’s eager secretary Dolly (Melanie Paxson) and his trusted assistant Tommie (Kathy Baker). Thompson is at her best when she’s in full curmudgeon mode, spewing understandable distaste over the excesses of the Disney machine, from the sugary brightly colored snack foods that are constantly being thrust in her face to all of the attempts by Disney to soften the stern nanny (“Mary Poppins does not cavort, Mr. Disney! She does not twinkle!”).

Tom Hanks does a fine job conveying the essence of Walt Disney, but he is hamstrung by a lack of will on the part of the studio to explore their founder’s darker side. Walt Disney, like P.L. Travers, had plenty of his own baggage and childhood wounds that shaped who he became in later life, but the darkest Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay goes is showing Disney stubbing out a cigarette and saying how he doesn’t want people to see that he has such an unhealthy habit (would anyone even have said that in 1961?). Walt eventually shares a few difficult childhood moments that he had with his dad but I would have been far more interested in Hanks’ character if he wasn’t painted in such a “practically perfect” way, to quote Mary Poppins’ frequent description of herself.

savingmrbanks2The film obviously takes liberties with the facts, but Thompson’s performance is so delicious that she manages to right the wrongs done to the memory of Travers’ actual encounters with Disney, which were even less agreeable than depicted here. At the end of the film, when we see Travers return to L.A. for the premiere of Mary Poppins (that Walt neglected to invite her to), we see her crying tears of wistfulness and gratitude as she watches the movie for the first time. Travers did crash the L.A. premiere in 1964 and she did cry during the screening, but there was no joy in her tears. She hated what Disney had done with her beloved Mary Poppins and confronted him about it at the party afterwards. “Pamela, that ship has sailed,” Walt Disney curtly replied, and then turned and walked away. Travers made a fortune from the film and the resurgence of popularity in her books, but she remained bitter to the end. The author died in 1996, but she left a clause in her will that said no Americans could be involved in any future projects involving Mary Poppins.

I grew up watching Mary Poppins and can practically recite the entire screenplay by heart. I do wonder how moviegoers who do not share a love for the 1964 film will respond to this one. But while both Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks may be guilty of generous helpings of Disney-fueled sentimentality, both rise above it thanks to the talent, wit and intelligence of the two British women at their helms: Julie Andrews and Emma Thompson.