The trailer for “Saving Mr. Banks” resembles the film only slightly more than “The Shining” resembles that fake trailer for the film that made the rounds 10 or so years ago. In the trailer, “Mr. Banks” looks light and fun, with a little playful back-and-forth between the frigid, overprotective writer and the movie executive who’s looking to turn her pet project into box office gold. Nora Ephron made this movie with Meg Ryan four or five times (twice with “Banks” star Tom Hanks, strangely enough), and we all know that it ends with the two finding some middle ground while learning to be more understanding of others.
Except that this movie isn’t even remotely like that. Instead, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a dark, painfully sad journey of a grown woman still looking to redeem her long-lost father, occasionally broken up by moments of levity. This makes for a more emotionally complex story, which is a nice surprise, but it doesn’t always make for a better story. The flashback timeline is informative, but the present day timeline is more interesting.
It is the year 1961, and P.L. Travers (a spot-on Emma Thompson) has been fielding calls from movie mogul Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years about adapting her book “Mary Poppins” for the silver screen. Her answer has always been a steadfast ‘no,’ but when a financial adviser friend of hers reminds her that she’s almost out of money, Mrs. Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles, meet with Walt, and consider the possibility of allowing Disney and his team to work their “magic” on her beloved Mary. From the beginning, though, Mrs. Travers has objections to their treatment of the material, and in flashback, we see why: as a young girl in rural Australia in the early 1900s, Mrs. Travers had a wonderful relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), an otherwise unreliable and occasionally foul-tempered drunk who nonetheless adored his eldest daughter “Ginty” and encouraged her to think creatively. She lost him at an early age, and she’s clearly still stinging from the loss, and the fact that Disney and his staff doesn’t understand what “Mary Poppins” means to her, in both a literal and figurative sense, infuriates her.
George Lucas once said that his ultimate goal with Episodes I-III of the “Star Wars” saga was to have viewers feel sorry for Darth Vader when he begins to choke his first victim in “A New Hope,” a moment where people had previously feared him. There is a similar emotional dilemma at play here as well. Before the flashbacks become too revealing, the present-day P.L. Travers’ many eccentricities, even the most irritating ones, are still somewhat amusing. As the film explores her tragic upbringing, those tics reveal themselves to be the emotional scars that they are, and no amount of funny that follows in its wake can make that go away.
At the same time, credit must be given for taking a story rife with conflict and, rather than diluting that conflict with a handful of one-liners, Disney adds an extra layer of conflict. They could have shied away from the sordid aspects of this story and forced the audience to deal with the adult Mrs. Travers as she was on the surface – that certainly would have been the easier way out – but they didn’t. This turns out to both help and harm the movie, yes, but it does make for a more honest, and fulfilling, viewing experience.