‘Saving Mr. Banks’ kicks off AFI Fest with somewhat surreal start

Tom Hanks arrives for the AFI premiere of his new movie, “Saving Mr. Banks,” Thursday night in Hollywood.
(John Shearer / Associated Press)

“It’s like a roller derby out there,” Tom Hanks says from a corner of Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. And he’s not talking about the scene across the street Thursday night at the TCL Chinese Theatre, where Hanks’ latest movie, “Saving Mr. Banks,” is about to enjoy its 2013 AFI Fest premiere.

Hanks is enthusing about the sheer number of good movies that have arrived in recent weeks. He has seen “12 Years a Slave” (“Great!”), “Gravity” (“Fantastic!”) and next up on his must-see list is Robert Redford’s solo survival tale, “All Is Lost.” (“It’s not easy being alone ... I know from experience,” Hanks tells me, referring, of course, to “Cast Away.” “I’m interested to see what he does with that.”)

It will also be interesting to see what film academy voters make of “Saving Mr. Banks,” a warmly sentimental, behind-the-scenes story about Walt Disney’s (Hanks) protracted attempt to persuade the famously prickly British author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign away the screen rights to her beloved creation, Mary Poppins.

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It is, as Hanks described it to me during a pre-screening reception, “lovely,” a backstage yarn full of wonderful glimpses into the filmmaking process that should elicit smiles from the same academy members who voted for “The Artist” and “Argo.” (“Hollywood has always been in love with itself,” says a rival awards season consultant, “and the relationship seems to be getting more serious than ever.”)

The movie’s selection as the opening night gala for the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest program made for something of a surreal evening, given that a scene in “Saving Mr. Banks” re-creates “Mary Poppins’” 1964 premiere at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre. Moviegoers leaving the theater could be seen pausing in the famous, footprint-laden forecourt, looking back at the famous front entrance and noting how little has changed in a half century.

“Life just keeps folding around,” John Lee Hancock, the movie’s director, said, introducing the film. “It seems what happens has happened before. It all just feels right being here tonight.”

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“Saving Mr. Banks” played well to the packed house, though not everyone succumbed to its unabashed heart-tugging. (“Am I dead inside?” wondered one prominent film critic, following the screening.) The movie’s cat-and-mouse game should have a canny appeal, though, as the starchy author serves as a stand-in for anyone opposed to Disney’s pervasive optimism and resistance-is-futile showmanship.

Expect to see more of that theatrical flair on display when Disney hosts a premiere for “Saving Mr. Banks” on the studio lot in early December. And don’t be surprised if a certain special someone connected to the movie’s story shows up for the event, though she probably won’t be floating in via a parrot-handled umbrella. It can be kind of windy in Burbank that time of year.


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