1 out of 5 stars
Despite what the wonderful world of Disney teaches us, when you wish upon a star, your dreams don't always come true. And so it is for the creators of Walt Before Mickey, whose hearts were in the right place but whose skills were lacking.
The film, which premieres at Downtown Disney AMC on Friday before beginning a limited theatrical release, recounts Walt's early adult years, from his return from World War I in 1919 to the first Mickey Mouse cartoon in 1928. (His childhood years are sandwiched awkwardly into the opening credits.) In those turbulent 10 years, he suffered multiple bankruptcies, moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles and saw his Alice in Cartoonland and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit franchises taken away. But he also befriended animator Ub Iwerks, formed a fledgling business with his elder brother Roy and married his life partner, Lily.
Directed by Khoa Le and based on Timothy Susanin's book, the movie was filmed in Sanford and DeLand with some Florida talent both in front of and behind the camera. Local filmmakers are always glad when flicks choose Orlando – especially the recent Tomorrowland and Sharknado 3 – but this one was fraught with difficulty. Filmed in just 25 days, the movie took a nearly one-month break to find a "new direction," according to co-writer/producer Arthur Bernstein, a native of West Palm Beach. And multiple sources describe the production as problematic – ironically, much like Walt's early years – with a new director being brought in, crew members walking off the set, actors not getting paid on time and damage occurring to historic DeLand buildings used for filming.
"Every actor got paid on time," Bernstein told me. "The actors that you're referring to are people that we were made aware [of] after the fact that never actually showed up on the set. They were, I guess, double-booked, and I guess there are ... rules that you have to pay an actor [who is booked but doesn't work], so we paid them.
"We did change directors because our first director did not move at a pace that was right [and] did some unauthorized filming," he says, adding that all building damage was paid for. "As you know, we're ultra-low budget. ... We did everything to the best of our ability. ... We wanted to do it right. We wanted to make an homage to Walt Disney."
So how's the finished product? Though the cinematography is pleasing and the editing efficient, other elements fall short. As Walt, Thomas Ian Nicholas, though likable, has neither the requisite look nor fire. One simply can't imagine him as the demanding perfectionist, striking fear into his staff with a single raised eyebrow. As Roy, Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder is lost, as usual, wandering without dramatic focus, though he at least looks a bit like his character. The supporting players range from competent (co-writer/producer and South Florida native Armando Gutierrez Jr. as Iwerks, plus Orlando natives Timothy Neil Williams as animator Fred Harman and Kate Katzman as Lillian) to prone to overacting (Frank Licari as businessman George Winkler and Donn Lamkin as Walt's father).
The story is solid, but the screenplay is only partially effective, content to mope along with little joy or whimsy. And scenes resemble re-enactments more than meaningful human encounters. Despite that docudrama feel (and the fact that the book was approved by Walt's daughter), the film often misleads the audience. For instance, when Walt hires Friz Freleng (of later Warner Brothers fame), he's told that Freleng is great at voices. Freleng even demonstrates a Yosemite Sam sound. However, that would have been little reason for hiring him – six years before the advent of sound. And while some say Freleng created Yosemite Sam in his own image, it was, of course, Mel Blanc who voiced the major Warner Bros. characters. Indeed, Freleng has not a single voice credit on IMDb.
The budget hinders the production too, as most scenes are indoors, in buildings that were undoubtedly inexpensive to procure. Though there are some nice train shots (both real and CGI), we never get a sense of 1920s Kansas City, Los Angeles or New York City, with the latter represented just once by an unrealistic and dimly lit cityscape. Scenes involving Walt's pet mouse are admittedly touching, as is the moment when the animators – led by Lillian – pick Mickey as the perfect name for their future star. But I found these moments fleeting and longed to revisit better Disney stories, such as Saving Mr. Banks and the documentary Walt – the Man Behind the Myth.
The worst error is saved for the end-credit mini-biographies, which are accompanied by real photos. Astonishingly, Roy's image is not Roy at all, but his son, Roy E. Disney. Bernstein says that will be fixed soon, but that still won't fully expunge the production's aroma of amateurism.
Walt Before Mickey features tons of quotable dialogue, most of it in unrelenting voice-over. Some lines are inspirational, but some are corny and cliché-ridden, such as "I had a dream, and I was determined to make my dream come true." But I was most struck by a famous Walt quote not from the movie: "You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality." In this instance, that "place" is a film – conceived nobly but executed poorly by people who fell short of their dream.