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Hanks, Thompson headline 'Saving Mr. Banks'

The story of how "Mary Poppins" was brought to the screen by Walt Disney, over the objections of the book's author.

EVERY YEAR now we get an awards-season movie about the magic of moviemaking, as prizes to tend to flow to movies that make the industry feel good about itself.

This year's model is "Saving Mr. Banks," the story of attempts by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to persuade Hollywood-hating novelist P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to allow her "Mary Poppins" (1964) to be adapted for the screen.

The opening scenes establish Travers (though Aussie by birth) as a haughty Londoner who believes Walt is a merchant of cheap sentiment who wants to grab her tart, tidy children's story with his white Mickey mitts, possibly larding it with happy songs and animated characters.

She loathes the idea, but she's also broke. On the advice of her barrister, she ends her 20-year policy of "no" and considers a policy of "maybe." She flies to Los Angeles to consider Walt's in-person pitch.

This is all played as light comedy, Thompson maintaining a scowl as she sits in her hotel room and stares disdainfully at giant stuffed Mickey Mouse, chafing at Walt's Midwestern informality (he calls her Pam), balking at the eager suggestions of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, very funny) charged with composing tunes for the adaptation and trying to sell the dour Travers on the word "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

Surely it was Travers who observed that the sound of it is something quite atrocious.

Travers is passionately protective of her work, and director John Lee Hancock shows us why. He sets the movie on parallel tracks, alternating the Hollywood comedy with flashbacks to Travers' troubled upbringing in Australia, where she doted on an alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) whose failures created unresolved feelings within her that are bound up in the character of the father in her book, Mr. Banks.

It's Walt who finally understands this - put forth nicely in a few scenes that draw on Hanks' natural empathy and intelligence. Hanks looks and sounds nothing like Disney, but as usual he understands the character perfectly, and the context of the big scenes.

Thompson has fewer notes to play, mostly variations on idea of disdain (I'm reminded of her Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing"). Even when the movie was finished, Walt was so terrified of her he "forgot" to invite her to the premier, where the movie builds to its emotional conclusion.

In reality, Travers reportedly loved the movie (it won five Oscars) a little less than everybody else. But she did cash the checks and live to prosperous old age, and her books are none the worse for Disney's spoonful of cinematic sugar.