Critics are sometimes accused of being heartless, or having some sort of macho imperative to steel ourselves against the tug of emotional manipulation. This is not an altogether bad rap. I know that I resent it when films wade into specific zones of pathos — the death of children or animals, for instance — that I think are below the belt. But on the other hand, most of the film writers I know share my enthusiasm for Steven Spielberg, and he is not exactly shy about zeroing in on an audience's deep-seated emotional receptors. Think of E.T. saying goodbye to Elliott, or the separation of sisters in The Color Purple, or A.I.'s David wishing in vain for a miracle from the Blue Fairy. These moments are as moving to me as, say, the death of the donkey in Bresson's Balthasar, despite Bresson being more "rigorous." That's because Spielberg is a master in his own right, earning his cathartic moments through skillful plotting, character consistency, and internal organization. Even if you don't dissect Spielberg's formal chops, I would contend that you feel them, on an intuitive level.
So when I argue that Saving Mr. Banks is mostly a bad film, I want to make something clear. Just as I believe that one can intuitively recognize the quality of a craftsman like Spielberg, Lucas, or Eastwood at his best, I strongly suspect you may come away from Saving Mr. Banks with an odd sense that something didn't add up. This is because, despite his industry plaudits and popularity, John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Blind Side) is not a good director.
He will definitely get some responses from you; he can produce "effects." Just as The Blind Side traded on uplift inherent in its subject matter (as well as a deep desire to believe that individual relationships can solve a systemic problem like racism), Saving Mr. Banks combines a basic fascination with Hollywood behind-the-scenes wheedling with a nostalgia for one of the Walt Disney Company's best live-action films, 1964's Mary Poppins. The film is specifically focused on Disney himself (Tom Hanks) and his struggle to make a picture that will sufficiently satisfy the author of the Poppins books, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) so that she will at long last grant the studio the movie rights.
This is a Disney film, so in addition to being a kind of advertisement for itself and its founder, Banks is also written as the silliest kind of comedy of manners, with the uptight Brit invading the "Happiest Place on Earth," continually finding fault, and eventually being worn down by Walt's smirking American showmanship. As a kind of counterbalance of gravitas, we see flashbacks to Travers' childhood, a sort of mirror of fantasy and pain that she is protecting as the true basis for the Poppins universe. In time, the two antagonists thaw one another through an anachronistic, Oprahesque revelation of their wounded inner children.
One could certainly take issue with the facts that Saving Mr. Banks blatantly fudges in order to make both Travers and Disney look less reprehensible. (When asked if she has children, there's a reason Travers replies, "not really," and Disney's neglect in inviting Travers to the premiere was no mere oversight.) But fabulists will be fabulists, and myths will be myths. No, the real trouble with Saving Mr. Banks is that characters are intransigent about decisions one minute, then change their minds the next, as the story requires. Flashbacks are intended to deepen the stakes of what we're seeing, but actually just sacrifice clarity in order to hide a minor "twist."
This also means that the real Mary Poppins character (Rachel Griffiths) is given almost nothing to do. Hancock is so busy patching over poorly constructed scenes and transitions with schmaltz that he never really allows anything to develop in an organic fashion. This is a film that continually insists it is something intelligent, but is built like an amusement park ride. If you don't mind being jerked around, have at it.