Disney Unleashes Secret Weapon in Quest for 'Banks' and 'Frozen' Oscar Glory: Its History

The stars of "Mary Poppins" were at Monday's "Saving Mr. Banks" premiere, and the studio's 90th birthday celebration on Tuesday drew many other Disney legends.
Disney legends pose for a "class photo."

For lovers of Hollywood history like myself -- and for older Academy members, who lived through it -- it really doesn't get much more exciting than the last two nights' festivities on the Disney lot, during which the Mouse House tugged at the heartstrings of awards voters and tastemakers in the cause of promoting its primary live-action and animated feature awards contenders, Saving Mr. Banks and Frozen.

On Monday night, the studio hosted the Los Angeles premiere of Banks -- it already had played at the London and AFI film festivals -- followed by a throwback afterparty in the studio's commissary.

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On hand for the festivities were not only the film's principal creative talent -- director John Lee Hancock, writer Kelly Marcel and stars Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti and Annie Rose Buckley -- but also the principal talent from the film that inspired the film, Mary Poppins stars Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. One man fell into both categories: 85-year-old Richard Sherman, who, along with his late brother Robert, composed the songs and score for Poppins -- winning Oscars for both -- and who also served as a musical consultant on Banks, in which he is portrayed by Schwartzman. (The whole group of them gathered to sing "Let's Go Fly a Kite" before the festivities began.)

Andrews and Van Dyke left early in order to cede the spotlight to the Banks stars, who were joined at the afterparty by younger A-listers such as Jason Segel and Alison Williams. But Sherman was unmistakably the toast of the party -- just as he was at a Nov. 9 sing-along of Poppins songs that was also designed to evoke nostalgia and channel it toward Banks' Oscar candidacy.

Come Tuesday night, Sherman was back on the lot again, along with dozens of other Disney legends, to help celebrate Disney Animation's 90th year of operations. At the event, which was held in a heated tent erected on "Legends Plaza," appropriately enough, the studio's chairman and CEO Bob Iger welcomed guests, touted Disney's rich history and explained how proud he was of the studio's 53rd animated feature, the best animated feature Oscar hopeful Frozen, which screened before the festivities began for people who had not already seen it.

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(Frozen was No. 1 at the box office last weekend, its second weekend in theaters. Bizarrely, no outright-Disney film has ever won the best animated feature Oscar, which was only created in 2001. Since then, Pixar-produced films have dominated the competition, claiming the prize in seven of the 12 years.)

With the studio's chairman, Alan Horn, president Ed Catmull and general manager Andrew Millstein looking on from the audience, Iger introduced -- with a hug -- its chief creative officer, John Lasseter, the closest thing that there is today to Walt Disney himself. Lasseter explained how his admiration for Disney's rich and unparalleled history led him to return to Disney in 2006, 23 years after he had been fired from it for relentlessly pushing the idea of computer animation, only this time with his Pixar operation in tow.

Lasseter then introduced many of the "Disney Legends" who played important roles in the studio's history, inviting each to take a bow. Among those on hand: Tony Anselmo, the voice of Donald Duck; Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Alice in Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Wendy in Peter Pan (1953); Bill Farmer, the voice of Goofy; Floyd Norman, the first African-American animator at Disney, who worked on Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Jungle Book (1967); Stan Freberg, the voice of Beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955); 100-year-old Milton Quon, who worked on Fantasia (1940) and Dumbo (1941); Russi Taylor, the voice of Minnie Mouse; and 103-year-old Ruthie Thompson, who worked at the studio for 40 years as an inker.

The whole group -- plus Josh Gad, the voice of Frozen's instantly iconic snowman character Olaf -- then joined Lasseter for a class photo that, sadly, will not be re-creatable when the studio celebrates its centennial 10 years from now. To its credit, the studio decided to seize the moment, and hopes that Oscar voters will elect to do the same on behalf of its films.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg