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Cheers, Tears and Awards Buzz for the 3-Hankie ‘Banks’

The AFI Festival opened Thursday night with Disney’s “Savings Mr. Banks,” where audiences sat at a premiere in the TCL Chinese Theater and watched onscreen characters sitting at a premiere at the Chinese Theater. It was a moment of pure dizzy land.

The 1964 “Mary Poppins” bowed at the theater (then called Grauman’s Chinese) and went on to hefty Oscar attention; “Mr. Banks” looks likely to imitate the original in that area as well. It’s a contender in the major categories, including pic, direction, script, and acting.

In a year when many films pushed the envelope in terms of subject matter and approach, “Mr. Banks” is proudly, defiantly old-fashioned. It’s a bit of counter-programming, which is both its greatest strength and its vulnerability. Critics groups will likely ignore it, but its traditional virtues may be exactly what voters at the Academy and other orgs like the Globes and guilds are looking for.

Emma Thompson plays P.L. Travers as a refugee from “Driving Miss Daisy” or “The African Queen,” an icy know-it-all just waiting to be thawed out; Tom HanksDisney is a cross between Sheriff Andy Taylor and Dr. Phil. Rival studios will plant stories in the media about how far the film strays from the darker aspects of the story; but it’s a script about storytelling and when your movie centers on “Mary Poppins,” you know it’s not going to be a gritty documentary.

The film’s other awards challenge: Oscar voters have generally been stingy in saluting movies about moviemaking (“Sunset Blvd,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Player,” etc). But that long streak was broken with “The Artist,” so maybe the tide has changed.

In the past, Disney has been timid about awards campaigning, and is the only major studio to never have won a best-picture Oscar. But the team pulled out all the stops for this one, including a pre-screen party, post-screen party, and hoopla like Emma Thompson placing her hands and feet in the Chinese courtyard.

Before the screening, Disney and AFI Fest hosted a cocktail reception at the Roosevelt Hotel, where producer Alison Owen, co-scripter Kelly Marcel and the actors accepted congrats from the people who’d already seen it. Director John Lee Hancock was beaming and told Variety it was “surreal fun” to film events at Disneyland and on the Burbank backlot where they occurred.

Inside the theater, AFI topper Bob Gazzale welcomed the crowd to the recently revamped theater (“a movie mecca”) and touted the fact that AFI fest is showing 120 films from 43 countries. Hancock introduced the actors and Richard M. Sherman, the “Poppins” co-songwriter. The director thanked everyone at Disney: “I thought you’d want to come in and change things every step of the way, and you didn’t.” In other words, they protected the legacy of Uncle Walt by letting the storytellers tell the story their way.

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