It’s tricky business, telling a story in which the hero is not heroic and behaves badly (trust me on this). If such a story is not told just right, the audience has no rooting interest. It’s hard to keep them engaged, to make them care.
Judging from “Saving Mr. Banks,” P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, was an absolute pill. At her best, she was smug and condescending. At her worst, which seems to have been on days ending in “Y,” she was abrasive to the point that you picture yourself hitting her in the head with a shovel. You imagine the satisfying whoosh said shovel would make as it arced through the air.
So why then did I find myself feeling empathy for her? Why did I tear up — just a little, and they were manly tears — when I watched her view the movie version of her life’s work? (Spoiler alert: Disney winds up making a Mary Poppins movie.)
It’s because of my friend John Lee Hancock. Working with a very fine script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, John knew just whom to cast, and he knew how to direct them. Emma Thompson, whom I’d happily watch read aloud from the phone book, outdoes herself here. She gives us subtle peeks at the inner vulnerability of a character who wears her outward prickliness like porcupine armor. But she never overdoes it. Nor does John Lee. Missus Travers has no Scrooge-like conversion in the end. Never does her heart melt with warmth and love for her fellow man, which is fitting. Rather, we grow to understand why she is the way she is, and we respect her for it. We sympathize.
And man, is Tom Hanks ever good as Walt Disney! Within five minutes, I’d pretty much forgotten he was Tom Hanks — no easy feat, that. I simply sat there wishing for more of him, and wishing that I had had the chance to meet Walt in real life.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is excellent, old-fashioned filmmaking. It’s the kind of movie I wish Hollywood would make more often.
Earlier this year, Gilligan directed the series finale of his Emmy-winning creation, “Breaking Bad.”