Pete Hammond

Could Disney finally be on track for a Best Picture Oscar winner of its own making? Who knows, but judging from the very enthusiastic reaction to the world premiere tonight of Saving Mr. Banks at London’s Odeon Leicester Square theatre on the closing night of BFI London Film Festival, it’s off to a good start. Deadline’s International Editor Nancy Tartaglione reports there was about four minutes of sustained applause as the end credits began and word at the Old Billingsgate after-party was unanimously upbeat with premiere-goers loving it. Initial reviews also seem to be strong. Before the film rolled an organist onstage warmed up the first-nighters with the score for Mary Poppins, the film that serves as the inspiration for this tale of how Walt Disney led a two-decades-long quest to bring notoriously reticent P.L. Travers’ classic book to the screen. Director John Lee Hancock, producers Alison Owen and Ian Collie and stars Colin FarrellTom Hanks, Ruth Wilson and Emma Thompson were then introduced to the crowd. Thompson remarked, “it’s very moving to have the film premiere in London… so let’s watch the damn thing”. There’s even a reference to the Leicester Square theatre in the movie.

Related: Tom Hanks Retraces A Life In Pictures At BAFTA Event

The feel-good film which has its next festival stop as the opening night November 7 of AFI Fest and is released December 13 could be a holiday-season smash and an awards magnet for Academy voters in the same way recent more feel-good-type Best Pic winners like The King’s Speech and The Artist became. Even last year’s winner Argo had a strong Hollywood connection as did The Artist and the current Banks, something easily relatable to the industry voters who make up the Academy.

With critics so far lining up like lemmings behind the demanding 12 Years A Slave, could this possibly turn into a year like 2010 when critical darling The Social Network steamrolled through early awards only to be caught off guard when the industry fell in love with the more accessible The King’s Speech? It is still very early to say but this uber-competitive year could be another interesting test between the growing fissure separating critics groups and Oscar voters. Or not. This race has many twists and turns to take, I suspect.

I caught the film at a small screening Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles and ran into one person who was so moved by it they were seeing it already for a second time. “I blubbered through it even more now,” they said afterward. Movies that have an emotional core often have a built-in ’want-to-see’ advantage. I can easily see it scoring nominations for Picture, director Hancock (whose last film, The Blind Side, similarly drew both tears and laughs resulting in a surprise Best Pic nomination and Best Actress win for Sandra Bullock), Original Screenplay, lead actress Thompson, supporting actor Hanks, Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing, and Music Score for 10-time nominee Thomas Newman who has yet to win.

For Disney it would be sweet indeed, as the company on its own remains the only major studio to never win a Best Picture even though they scored Pic nominations in recent years for animated efforts Beauty And The Beast, Toy Story 3 and Up. Of course Walt Disney in his lifetime collected more competitive Oscars than any individual in history with 22 (26 overall including Honorary wins) out of 59 nominations — but almost always in the documentary and shorts category.  Rules were different in those days and as head of the studio Walt got to collect the hardware. The irony here is that Mary Poppins was his breakthrough into the Best Picture category in 1964, collecting a near-record 13 nominations and winning 5 Academy Awards including Best Actress for Julie Andrews. Had Warner Bros’ Broadway musical juggernaut My Fair Lady not come along it almost certainly would have won that most desired Oscar in April of 1965 for Walt (as he liked to be called) and his studio — Walt’s sole personal Best Picture nomination — but it wasn’t to be. He died of lung cancer 20 months later at age 65. It would be one of those unique “only in Hollywood” scenarios if Saving Mr. Banks becomes the one to finally do the trick when Mary Poppins itself fell short. Of course, through its acquisition of Harvey Weinstein‘s Miramax Films, the Disney studio did enjoy a taste of what it was like to have a Best Picture with Miramax wins for The English Patient, Shakespeare In Love and Chicago, but that label was sold off and Disney is still looking for a Best Picture statuette born and bred at the Mouse House. One film that is sure to offer strong competition is Gravity, ironically from Warner Bros.

Like most movies these days Saving Mr. Banks had a long development process beginning with a 2002 TV documentary The Shadow Of Mary Poppins. Essential Media, the Australian company run by CEO Chris Hilton, was behind that and joined with Banks’ producer Alison Owen’s Ruby Films to develop this project. They had several drafts of a script from writer Sue Smith (with later drafts by credited co-writer Kelly Marcel) before Disney threatened legal action to shut down the project. When I ran into him at the Los Angeles premiere of Dallas Buyers Club last week, Hilton told me it was finally greenlit in late 2011 when Disney’s production head Sean Bailey got the studio to sign on, and that included the full support of Disney Chairman Bob Iger. Considering the first-ever depiction in a movie of Walt Disney and the need to have permission from the notoriously image-conscious organization, it would have been impossible to make any other way. “We could not have done this without them,” said Hilton. And considering the surprising depth of this portrait of storytelling and where that inspiration comes from, Disney most likely could not have told this tale minus this set of filmmakers dedicated to making a movie that tells the truth without the proverbial ‘spoonful of sugar’ added. Hilton says they are now in the process of remaking that 2002 docu, updating it with the rest of tale of the making of “the making of” Saving Mr. Banks.

Related: ‘Saving Mr Banks’ Producer Alison Owen On The Power Of Story

As for Hanks’ portrayal of Walt Disney, it may be the highest compliment to say I forgot I was actually watching this actor as he really captured the essence of this legend. Is it possible Hanks can score that rare two-fer with a Best Actor nod for the critically acclaimed Captain Phillips which continued to score well at the box office this weekend, and a Best Supporting nomination for playing Disney — two real life characters in one year? Entirely possible, even with the intense competition in both categories. Thompson is also a near-certain bet for another Best Actress bid (she won for Howard’s End and has a second Oscar for writing Sense & Sensibility). The pair share a killer scene toward the end that should seal the deal. Of course, despite everyone’s desire to present a “warts and all” portrait of Walt, political reality did come into consideration as Hanks said in Saturday’s BAFTA tribute to him for their Life In Pictures series. When asked if Disney could be even remotely portrayed as the 3-pack-a-day smoker he was, Hanks said “Hell no”, and added they even lost a negotiation to show him holding a lit cigarette (but there is at least a veiled reference in one scene in the film).

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