American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Saving Mr. Banks" is an intoxicating kiddie cocktail for young-at-heart adults, inspired by a Disney fairy tale based on fact: the making of "Mary Poppins," the 1964 musical fantasy starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke that would lift the studio's status from pioneering animation factory to producer of celebrated live-action family entertainment.
The cinematic recipe? Combine one part comical clash of the titans with one part riveting backstage account of artistic collaboration. Then add a splash of bitters in the form of a coming-of-age tale laced with broken dreams. Serving it all with panache (along with a few knowing winks for Poppins buffs) is a standout ensemble of seasoned players, under the direction of John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side").
The movie focuses on two weeks in 1961. That is when the aggressively charming Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, conveying both the Hollywood icon's boyish sense of wonder and iron-fisted resolve) entered the final stages of a 20-year pursuit of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, perfectly cast in every way down to her tightly wound perm), the Australian-born British female author behind the flying nanny, to secure the film rights to her book.
Now that sales of her work are slowing, the cash-strapped writer is encouraged by her agent to seriously consider Disney's offer, and the mogul is eager to finally seal the deal as he beckons the London-based writer to his Burbank, Calif., domain. But Travers wants the agreement on her own persnickety terms. The back-and-forth wooing that ensues amid splendidly retro '60s décor and fashions will prove irresistible for anyone who grew up under the influence of Uncle Walt's cultural sway—except, perhaps, those for whom the very idea of Disney present celebrating Disney past sounds like an infomercial from hell.