Can ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ win Disney first Best Picture Oscar?

While Walt Disney collected a record 21 Oscars, he never took home the big one: Best Picture. He came close in 1964 when “Mary Poppins” won five of its 13 Oscar bids but lost the top race to “My Fair Lady.” Almost a half century later, “Saving Mr. Banks” — a movie about the making of that family classic — could finally win the studio that bears his name this elusive prize. 

The biopic, by “The Blind Side” helmer John Lee Hancock, stars a pair of two-time Oscar champs: Tom Hanks as the persuasive studio chief and Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers who is reluctant to see her characters on the big screen. It debuted Sunday on the closing night of the London filmfest and the first reviews were enthusiastic, with many critics taking note of the commericial and awards potential of the film. (See sampling of notices below)

With the average age of academy members at 65 or thereabouts, a substantial number of them lived through the Golden Age of Hollywood lovingly recreated in “Saving Mr. Banks”. The last two Best Picture champs — “Argo” and “The Artist” — showcased the sunnier side of filmmaking while the one before (“The King’s Speech,” 2010) was also bathed in the nostalgia of a time gone by.  

Compare those views to the grittiness of our current Best Picture frontrunner “12 Years a Slave.” While that film has impressed the critics, it may leave Oscar voters shaken rather than stirred. “Gravity” — which is currently in second place — did equally well with the critics and just topped the box office for the third week in a row. However, it could be seen by voters as a technical achievement along the lines of 2009 also-ran “Avatar” than the movie most deserving of their top honor.

“Saving Mr. Banks” opens stateside on Dec. 13 and in Australia — the setting for flashbacks to Travers’ less than idyllic childhood — on Dec. 26, just one day before Oscar nomination ballots go live online. It unspools in England — home to about 10% of Oscar voters — on Jan. 17, the day after Oscar nominations are announced. 

It should be among the leaders with bids for Best Picture, Director, Actress (Thompson), Supporting Actor (Hanks), Original Screenplay, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling and Score (10-time Oscar also-ran Thomas Newman). However, with final ballots not available till Feb. 14, there is plenty of time for the other ponies to find their place in the race. 

Take a read of the reviews for “Saving Mr. Banks” below and then make (or change) your predictions for the Best Picture lineup. 

Scott Foundas (Variety) thought it “thick with affection for Hollywood’s most literal ‘dream factory’ and wry in its depiction of the studio filmmaking process, this ‘Sunset Blvd.’ lite should earn far more than tuppence from holiday audiences and from awards voters who can scarcely resist this sort of mash note to the magic of movies.”

Leslie Felperin (The Hollywood Reporter) called the film “a cunningly effective, if rather on-the-nose study of the transformation of pain into art, marbled with moments of high comedy” and said “audiences will swallow this tasty spoonful of sugar without complaint.”

Mark Adams (Screen Daily) found it “a beautifully mounted, amusing and often rather moving delve … an elegant and fascinating backstory to a true Disney classic. The film brims with thoughtful and engaging performances and is punctuated with smart dashes of music guaranteed to make any audience want to track down the original film.”

Oliver Lyttelton (Indie Wire) said, “the excellent script, credited to Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is sensitive and personal, depicting Disney (both the entity and the person) through Travers’ skeptical eye. Hanks’ performance (which is surprisingly, but probably correctly used sparingly; he’s very much a supporting player in the author’s story rather than a secondary lead) also nicely walks the line; it’s hardly warts-and-all, and he’s an ultimately avuncular figure, but the actor does a good job at showing Disney’s Machiavellian, manipulative side. And as Travers, Thompson is truly excellent. As the star of the Poppins-indebted ‘Nanny McPhee’ franchise, there’s a nice meta quality to her role in the film, but she resists the temptation to echo Julie Andrews — you can see how she’d be the creator of the character, but clearly isn’t the character. It’s the best role she’s had since at least ‘Primary Colors,’ and a fine reminder of what she’s capable of.”

And for David Gritten (The Telegraph) “this clash, with some of the real-life antagonism glossed over, has been reworked into a cat-and-mouse game that often resembles a seduction. In one corner: Hanks as Disney, all bluff charm, sweet persuasive reason and call-me-Walt bonhomie. In the other: Thompson as the prickly Travers, protective of her literary creation, a stickler for facts and grammar, and suspicious of the wearingly cheerful optimism of the studio’s culture. Obviously, this gets played for laughs – many of them good ones. No opportunity is lost to highlight the differences in world-view between these two. But it’s Thompson as the heroically unbiddable Travers who makes the most of it; her bravura performance effectively dominates the film.”

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