AFI Fest: 'Saving Mr. Banks' Aims to Become Third Consecutive Movie About Hollywood to Win Top Oscar

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks were on hand for the film's U.S. premiere at Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theatre, where "Mary Poppins" also premiered 49 years ago.
François Duhamel/Disney Enterprises, Inc
"Saving Mr. Banks"

One of the last players in this year's Oscar game has finally shown its cards stateside.

On Thursday evening, Walt Disney Pictures kicked off the 27th AFI Fest at Hollywood's historic TCL Chinese Theatre with the U.S. premiere of its primary live-action awards hopeful, John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks. (The film's world premiere closed the BFI London Film Festival last month.)

The dramedy revolves around the amusing interactions between P.L. Travers (two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson), the no-nonsense British woman who wrote the novel Mary Poppins, and Walt Disney (two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks), the all-American movie mogul who fought for 20 years to convince her to sell him its film rights. It cuts between her two-week visit to Hollywood in 1961 to meet with him and his collaborators as they tried to win her script approval, and flashbacks to her early 20th century upbringing in Australia, in the home of a loving but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: 'Saving Mr. Banks' Cast on the 'Complex' P. L. Travers

Hancock's last film, The Blind Side (2009), was a schmaltzy but charming tearjerker -- and wound up with Oscar nominations for best picture and best actress. My strong sense is that this film, which fits the same description but has the added benefit of being a movie about Hollywood (like the last two best picture Oscar winners, The Artist and Argo), will land the same two nods, as well as a supporting actor slot for Hanks (who could also score in the lead actor category for Captain Phillips). Farrell and Paul Giamatti also have outside chances of cracking into that category, as it is rather wide-open this year. And perennial Academy bridesmaid Thomas Newman -- who has been nominated for the best original score Oscar 11 times, more than anyone else alive who has not yet won -- will, in all likelihood, get another shot for this film.

Like most Disney pictures dating back to Disney's own reign over the studio, Saving Mr. Banks, which premiered at the same venue where Mary Poppins was unveiled 49 years ago and where some of Banks itself was shot, is a film that the whole family can enjoy on different levels. This pic owes a great debt to a strong script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, as well as the consultation of 85-year-old Richard Sherman, a lovely man who co-wrote the music for Mary Poppins with his late brother Robert. He is portrayed in the film by Jason Schwartzman, and Bob is played by B.J. Novak. Richard Sherman, whom I have interviewed, was in attendance at the premiere tonight, and he will be leading a sing-along of Mary Poppins music from a piano at the Polo Lounge tomorrow night during a dinner for Mr. Banks.

FILM REVIEW: Saving Mr. Banks

Disney is smart to put Sherman, a brilliant guy, front and center as much as possible over the next few months, because he, as a Disney confidante who was one of only two songwriters ever under contract to Walt (the other being his brother), implicitly lends a stamp of credibility to the film, at a time when many of its Oscar competitors are being targeted for being less than 100 percent accurate, historically. This film may not recount a story of the social import of some of those films, but, as one can deduce for oneself by paying attention to the images and audio that run over the film's end credits, it also looks invulnerable to those kinds of criticisms. (Nobody in the audience left their seat until a minute or so into the credits, after offering generous applause for the credit cards of Thompson, Hanks, Farrell and Sherman.)

Worth noting: Not that long ago, Finding Neverland (2004), another film about the story behind a story that we all love, with a focus on the tortured life of its author, scored six Oscar noms and five Golden Globe noms, including best picture mentions from both. Banks, like Neverland, will compete on the drama side at the Globes, because it not only makes you laugh; it also makes you cry. 

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg