Emma Thompson and Julie Andrews at the "Saving Mr. Banks" premiere
Emma Thompson and Julie Andrews at the "Saving Mr. Banks" premiere

The Disney company wasn't sure they were ready to jump on board "Saving Mr. Banks" (December 13), admits motion picture chairman Alan Horn. He wasn't sure it was the right thing to do, but production head Sean Bailey lobbied hard, and they finally decided that having some control by financing this $35 million Australian/British/US co-production of the origin story of the "Mary Poppins" movie was a good idea.

It's great to watch what happens when a family picture is so inside the Disney wheelhouse, as the marketing as been inventively spot-on, from sending out "Mary Poppins" Blu-rays and mounting sing-alongs with composer Richard Sherman and Emma Thompson to staging the premiere right on the Disney lot Monday night, where the "Saving Mr. Banks" gang joined up with "Mary Poppins" stars Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews to sing "Let's Go Fly a Kite" in front of the Main Theater. 

This battle of the Titans stars Tom Hanks as mustachioed studio mogul Walt Disney, struggling to wrest control of the movie version of "Mary Poppins" from dyspeptic London-based author P.L. Travers (Thompson), who hated animation and wasn't even invited to the premiere. She showed up anyway, and wound up a very wealthy woman. 

Based on the 2002 Australian documentary "The Shadow of Mary Poppins" and financed by Disney, this UK/Australian/US co-production is directed by John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") and is gaining momentum in this year's Oscar race. Two-time Oscar-winning writer-actress Thompson is coming on strong as a Best Actress contender, winning the National Board of Review.

The story flashes back to Travers' childhood in Australia with her beloved father (Colin Farrell), a failed banker, and unhappy mother (Ruth Wilson). Paul Giamatti stars as the film's one invented character, a limo driver designed to humanize Travers, and Jason Schwartzman and BK Novak are terrific as the Sherman brothers who melt Travers' heart with their songs. The writer's past unlocks the key to the film, as Disney figures out that this semi-autobiographical nanny who flies into 17 Cherry Tree Lane comes to save the banker father of Jane and Michael Banks--not the children. 

After developing the film, Australia's Essential Media and Entertainment brought the script by Sue Smith to Britain's Ruby Film ("Jane Eyre," "Elizabeth"), whose Alison Owen enthusiastically took it on, adding co-writer Kelly Marcel ("Fifty Shades of Grey") to the mix. BBC Films also came on board. She figured out that the Disney vs. Travers movie creation story had to balance out the backstory--the magic of making art out of tragedy is the secret sauce. And while Travers was a terror for all concerned--"My dear brother Bob and I went through a living hell with this movie," says Sherman, "for 48 years I hated her guts!"--it's fun to watch a woman being powerful and fighting for her creation--something Disney himself understands, as he recalls not being willing to give up Mickey Mouse early on in his career. "It's family," he said. 

The Disney family assembled on the lot for the afterparty in the Disney commissary, from Horn, who is wrestling with getting "Maleficent" into shape, and Disney CEO Bob Iger, who called Hanks himself to talk him into playing Disney, says Hanks: "If there's any way you could do this it would really help us out." Hanks said that he and Emma Thompson just sat opposite each other and nailed their big resolution scene in one afternoon.

Iger was grinning about nabbing the Lucas/Spielberg "Indiana Jones" franchise back from Paramount (which happily accepted some cash) and putting it into development with Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy. "It was not a must have, it was a want to have," Iger told me. "We can make a great movie."

Animation czar John Lasseter admits that Disney's princess musical "Frozen" was a tough nut to crack. The secret: figuring out that the Snow Queen was NOT a villain. Lasseter said he relies on Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo" and its sequel) and Pete Docter ("Up") to help him run Pixar as he returns Disney Animation to its former glory. They were both at the party, leaving the Pixar troops on their own in Emeryville. 

Check out a "Saving Mr. Banks" DGA Q & A below with Hancock, Hanks, Thompson, writer Kelly Marcel, producer Owen, and Sherman.

Saving Mr. Banks premiere