2015 / Director. Khao Le.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
Documentaries have been made about Walt Disney but we are yet to see a legitimate biographical feature film detailing his life and career. We got a glimpse into his world through the wonderful SAVING MR BANKS, but even then, the focus was on MARY POPPINS and not him directly. It took this very small, modest and humble film to finally capture something of his life's work.
As the title suggests WALT BEFORE MICKEY is a low budget independent film, which chronicles the early years of Walt Disney's career. Beginning with scenes depicting his childhood obsession with drawing characters the film quickly leaps forward to the creation of his first animation company “Laugh-O-Grams”. We then follow Disney through his trials and tribulations as he struggles and fights to make a name for himself. Facing financial ruin and sabotage from competing companies he enlists the business-smarts of his brother Roy and together they forge a reputation for being the premiere animators in Hollywood.
The first striking quality of the film is its production design. With an unpretentious recreation of Mid-Western America in the early 1920s and an effective era-costume design the film looks lovely and recalls the magnificent television qualities of the Kevin Sullivan productions of the 80s (ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, LANTERN HILL). It is also cast well with Thomas Ian Nicholas baring a striking resemblance to Walt and Jon Heder also having a likeness to Roy Disney.
It is a film that aims high, but falls short. There's a lot of sincerity on display, and all intentions do seem to be earnest - but sadly the script just isn't very good and so many details are lacking. There's a lot of information within the years covered by the film, and yet so little of it is shown. The mechanics of Disney's creativity is brushed over and the methods and techniques are entirely ignored. We go from Walt having a brilliant idea to it being fully realised. Huh? What? How, exactly, did he learn how to create a moving image and how did he produce a physical product? He carried film canisters in his hands throughout the film and yet there's no apparent understanding of how he made that happen. Such details are important to this chapter of his life but the film lacks the depth and understanding to fully represent these ingredients. The story also moves forward between weeks, months and years without any clear definition, and this sloppy type of storytelling lessons the integrity of the man and his work.
The makers of WALT BEFORE MICKEY brought a lot technical filmmaking skills to the table and created a great-looking film, and perhaps if they'd pursued a mini-series format they may have had less time restraints and more flexibility to flesh out the story. But as it stands, the life of Walt Disney is still waiting to be told properly. It certainly deserves to be.