There's a potential problem that comes with pulling back the curtain to reveal the business side of Hollywood: Stories about the financial struggles to create movie magic can get so bogged down in the particulars that the personal elements get buried under bundles of bulky bureaucracy.
"Saving Mr. Banks" — a behind-the-scenes look at the herculean efforts by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to secure the film rights from the reluctant author of the Mary Poppins books P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) — avoids the pitfall by concentrating more on the motivations behind the players and less on the mechanics of the deal.
This successful approach starts with a solid script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Not only do they get past the public persona of Disney to show him as a loving and devoted father, but they also manage to paint Travers as a three-dimensional character.
Without their vivid painting of Travers' past life, she could have easily been dismissed as cold and callous.
This examination includes a flashback to Travers as a child growing up in the Australian Outback. Her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell) would prove to be the biggest influence on the author in her professional and personal life.
Bouncing between the stories is handled seamlessly by director John Lee Hancock.
Both parts are so interesting they could have been cut apart and released as two strong movies.
The overall strength comes from Hanks and Thompson, who once again transform themselves to portray the spirit of their characters with such honesty and courage that the movie is never in danger of being a dry tale of Hollywood politics.
That was particularly challenging for Hanks, who had the unenviable task of portraying a real person who's so well known by the general public.
With the right mustache and a deep understanding of a person, Hanks captured enough of Disney's essence to bring him to life.
Whether it's his playful prodding of Travers to visit Disneyland with him ("Who wouldn't want to go to Disneyland with Walk Disney himself?") to a very earnest explanation of how making the "Mary Poppins" movie is less motivated by finance and more by a promise, Hanks has added another great performance to an already sterling career.
Equally good is Thompson. She brilliantly faces every challenge, from a quiet — but extremely touching — moment when Travers first sees the film to her unlikely connection with the man (Paul Giamatti) assigned to be her driver. Thompson finds that razor-sharp edge of being cantankerous while leaving enough room for her humanity to slip out as needed.
There's a very, very, very long word coined in "Mary Poppins" that starts with "super." That's all that's needed to describe the work of Hanks and Thompson, along with the film.
"Saving Mr. Banks," rated PG-13 for thematic elements. Stars Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Running time: 2 hours. Grade: B+
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.