There's a very real danger of applying a most peculiar kind of grading curve to Saving Mr. Banks. It's a movie produced by Walt Disney Pictures, with Walt Disney as an actual character, and it presents him as more of a human being with good and bad characteristics than a plaster saint? He's seen stubbing out a cigarette? He says "damn"? WHAT A BRAVE AND UNPRECEDENTED MOTION PICTURE THIS BE.

So, step #1: avoid that kind of thinking. Saving Mr. Banks is charming and surprisingly non-saccharine; but it's still the Disney monolith protecting its own. A "brand deposit", in the creepily Orwellian phrase that has been going around lately, after Disney decided against all logic that it would be fine for one of their executives to use it in a public forum. The whole plot is still dedicated to a climax that represents the triumph of Disneyan whimsy and sweetness over pain and sorrow, and which is exactly contrary to the established facts of real life. But, yes, it does allow Friendliest Living American Tom Hanks to portray his Friendliest Dead American Walt Disney with considerably more bite and nuance that any sane person would ever have expected. Here is a Walt who is charismatic and charming, and perfectly willing to use those qualities to get his way in a business meeting; a Walt who hands out pre-signed autograph cards at Disneyland without even noticing the possibility that someone might find this tacky or unctuous. Here is a Walt who can't entirely keep his expansive smile plastered on as he starts to get entirely pissed-off when he doesn't get his way, exactly how he wants it.

All that being said, it's not Walt's movie; he might not even be its second most prominent figure, in fact. This is, every inch, a movie belonging to P.L. Travers (played gorgeously by Emma Thompson in her first big leading role in a generation), the Australian-born author of the über-British Mary Poppins books that Disney eventually adapted into his 1964 masterpiece Mary Poppins. The film largely documents the process by which Disney managed to cajole Travers into selling him the film rights to her characters after 20 years of wheedling, succeeding only because the author had reached a point of financial desperation and was finally ready to let the glad-handling creator of frothy, bubble-headed cartoons convince her that he was going to make a film she wouldn't entirely hate.

Spoiler alert: she did entirely hate Disney's Mary Poppins, in real life. But as much as Saving Mr. Banks is willing to humanise its iconic co-star, it will not do the same for the entire edifice of Disney Magic™. And so Travers must end up loving the live-action/cartoon hybrid musical (despite her burned-in hatred for both cartoons and musicals), because, in this incarnation of her life story, it is the key to healing all of her deep-set emotional traumas, centered around her Australian childhood as simple Helen "Ginty" Goff (Annie Rose Buckley), daughter of the lovingly unstable alcoholic bank manager Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).

The huge, slab-like problem with Saving Mr. Banks is not, in the end, that it tells appalling, self-serving lies about its real-life subject; movies have been making fiction of reality for decades, and the story that the movie tells is more satisfyingly dramatic than the story that actually happened. It is not that the film ends up being a commercial for the transformative power of Disney, either: mostly, it's a commercial for the idea that Mary Poppins is a goddamn wonderful movie, and since this is merely accurate, I have no problem with it. The problem is that Saving Mr. Banks, as first written by Kelly Marcel with latter contributions by Sue Smith, began life as a straight-up biopic of Travers that only drifted into its current form once Disney got involved and cleared the way for both likeness rights and, even more crucially, music rights (Thomas Newman's score uses themes from the earlier film to great effect, and the narrative is built of phases centered on "Spoonful of Sugar", "Let's Go Fly a Kite", and "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank", with a sweet but spurious cameo for "Feed the Birds").  But enough of the biopic material remains that a huge chunk of the movie - certainly more than a quarter of the overall running time, maybe as much as a third - is spent in Travers's 1906 childhood in Australia, a place where momentum goes to die, slaughtered at the feet of Farrell's twee leprechaun of an Aussie banker.

The 1961 material is aces: directed with maximum bland hand-holding and redundancy by John Lee Hancock, for whom this still manages to be a major career peak (aye, it somehow manages to trump both The Alamo AND The Blind Side), though mostly because of everybody and everything that isn't him. The script is a friendly but largely accurate look inside the story-building process, with Bradley Whitford as producer Don DaGradi and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as songwriting brothers Robert and Richard Sherman playing the part of Virgil to Travers's descent into the Burbank inferno (along with Paul Giamatti as a friendly chauffeur, barely more than a cameo), and being completely great at it. The sweaty desperation of trying to get the very brittle and angry Englishwoman to respond with positive emotion to anything they have in mind for the project is funny and accessible without being sitcom-style broad, and all three actors are in pitch-perfect form, Novak especially. And it should come as no surprise, given how fully the film has been built around her, that Thompson is wonderful, easily the best element of the whole affair. The role probably did not offer her very many challenges, but still could hardly have been executed better than this: her default glacial expression of lifeless superiority is modulated in all sorts of beautiful little ways - her struggle not to enjoy herself as the Shermans present "Let's Go Fly a Kite" is a particular highlight - and her priggish line readings are reliably the most hilarious part of a movie that ends up being much more of a comedy than it presents itself.

Of course, the sparring between her and Hanks is the main event, and it's awfully good too, though to be honest, I prefer the scenes with the Shermans and DaGradi; they feel more alive and honest, and not so pre-ordained. Hanks is very good, even so - more at playing a character in a movie than in portraying anyone who resembles Walt Disney to a closer approximation than "white guys with mustaches" - and there's plenty of impressive character material to be had in his battle of wills with Thompson, between a depressed woman pretending to be unreachably proud and a stubborn businessman pretending to be the source of all happiness in the world.

But then there's that goddamn Australia material, sucking the joy right out of the movie, by rendering it schematic and bland in the most prototypical biopic manner. I don't mind Travers having personal demons that influence her reluctance to sell Mary Poppins to Disney; that might very well have been the fact, anyway. I mind that the movie slows itself to such an oozing crawl to show us these demons in such overwhelming detail, and that it leaves a punchy, deeply entertaining movie about the sausage-making process of developing a script at Disney in the '60s as such a wretched paint-by-numbers things. I really mind how much screentime is devoted to Farrell's awful, shticky performance (and I consider myself a Farrell partisan most of the time). Just about the only thing I don't mind is the John Schwartzman cinematography, for his customary Rockwellian softness and golden-hued nostalgia fits what the film is trying to do with the Australia scenes - and with the California scenes, when it comes down to it. Outside of that, the only worthwhile thing done with the flashbacks is a scene of daddy Goff getting drunk at a fair surreally chanting the lyrics to the Disney film's song "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank", intercut with the Shermans' first performance of it for Travers; it is the only cinematically complex thing happening anywhere in the film.

Basically, we have here a giddily enjoyable confection undone by its anxiety for a Something to be About. Give Travers a big weepy monologue about her drunk dad that explains all of her brittleness, and the story functions, at a mechanical level, exactly the same way (also, Thompson gets more to be awesome). As it stands the filmmakers wanted to make a standard biopic, for whatever reason, and that's exactly what they have on their hands. Far more of the film works than doesn't - and even more works for the dyed-in-the-wool Mary Poppins fan, who can pick up on the impressive number of Easter eggs littered throughout the script and the mise en scène, but the po-faced "daddy issues" focus of the narrative is tedious drudgery, and it's never very far away. It shouldn't be this much work to enjoy something this bouncy and fluffy.