Monday, August 24, 2015


Thomas Ian Nichols (left) and Jon Hader as Walt and Roy Disney
WALT BEFORE MICKEY (2015), Directed by Khoa Le and starring Thomas Ian Nicholas as Walt Disney, Jon Hader as Roy Disney, and Armando Guttierrez as Ub Iwerks.  Based on the book by Timothy Susanin and forward by Diane Disney Miller (Walt Disney’s Daughter).

There’s more than one howler in this sincere but regrettably inept biopic of Walt Disney’s early years in Marceline, Missouri, Kansas City, MO, and Los Angeles.  Several times Walt is referred to as being from KANSAS!  Not Missouri, not even Kansas City, Missouri, but KANSAS.  Much as we Kansans would love to claim him, the state of Missouri (with a nod to Chicago, where Walt was born) takes the palm.

Young Walt in Kansas City, appx. 1919

The film nods toward the expected sign posts in Walt’s early biography leading up to the late 1920s—the years on the Marceline farm (complete with the boy Walt sketching animals on the barn door); the post-World War I years in Kansas City (with references to the Pesman-Rubin Studio, where he first met Ub);  work at the Kansas City Film Ad company and the Laugh-O-Gram studios (where the Disney team first assembled); the first Newman movie theater advertisements (brief shots from the “Newman Laugh-O-Grams”); the shift to the Fairy Tales and the first “Alice” Cartoon (a few posters on the walls and a shot or two of “Alice”); the failure of Laugh-O-Gram (with Walt slumped over on his desk gazing quizzically at a little mouse); the relocation of the bankrupt Walt to Los Angeles (and the hookup with brother Roy); the loss of rights to “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” to Charles Mintz; and the train trip from NYC back to L.A. when Walt comes up with “Mortimer Mouse” (later christened “Mickey” back in the studio).  We end with Walt looking on with satisfaction as Mickey’s “Plane Crazy” is a hit at the movie theaters.

Walt and Ubb in Kansas City, appx. 1922

And, of course, there is the Kansas City team of Walt (an earnest take by Thomas Ian Nicholas, in and out of mustache), Hugh Harmon, Rudy Ising, Friz Freleng, and Ub Iwerks.  Ub is the star, to be sure, and the turn by actor-producer Armando Guttierrez is one of the better performances.  It’s fun to see these impersonations, and a welcome reminder of how many great animators came from K.C.  

Drawing by John C. Tibbetts

But whatever energy the first half musters up, the film’s second half falters badly as the pace goes slack and as everybody seems to wander around looking for a motivation.  There’s some silly business with a Mintz stooge infiltrating the Disney team as he lays the groundwork for some of the members to bolt the financially-straitened Walt.  Just when Walt arrives in L.A. in 1923, the film should have picked up steam; but the boiler goes dry.  Worse, the creation of Mickey is hurried over.  Doubtless, Disney copyright restrictions hampered any details of the Mouse’s genesis.  All we see is a crude drawing of a pre-Ub Mickey and a few scenes from “Plane Crazy.”  In reality it was “Steamboat Mickey” that first reached audiences; “Plane Crazy” was drawn first and released later.

Except in the early scenes in Marceline, Missouri, which are so handsomely shot they seem to belong to another movie (shot in Florida), WALT BEFORE MICKEY everywhere else betrays its humble budget and amateurish productions. Most of it is shot in a handful of small rooms in medium shot, with few exteriors and even fewer establishing shots. Period recreation is limited to a handful of props, bowties, and suspenders. There is one nice panning shot of the Laugh-O-Gram studio that seems to possess at least some period accuracy. The direction by Khoa Le (whose specialty so far is photographing weddings) is slack and the dialogue awkward. The “rags-to-riches” story fails to generate any dramatic heat. About the only “punch” anywhere comes when Ub collars one of the renegade animators as they leave Disney to go to Mintz.

About the book, from the University Press of Mississippi, author Timothy Susanin’s credentials consist of experience as a former federal prosecutor and Navy JAG.  Go figure.  The web site boasts that he wrote it out of concern for the scarcity of material about Walt’s early years. Apparently, he has not seen Leslie Iwerks’s wonderful book and documentary, The Hand Behind the Mouse, and the host of other books out there that document this period, including Russell Merritt’s Walt in Wonderland and Brian Burnes’s Walt Disney’s Missouri.

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