Walt Before Mickey Review!

Jondee here at Laugh-O-gram Studio,

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Walt Before Mickey is based on a biographical book of the same name by Timothy S. Susanin that covers from 1919 to 1928. It has the look of a Hallmark Channel movie, but the actors give sincere performances and it is a peek in the early days of filmmaking and animation. What has fascinated me is how a person can be successful with a creative vision, the setbacks and failures, and how the dream can be made a reality. Of course, we know the end result of animated films that have lasted generations, theme parks that cross the world, and a studio that has Marvel, Star Wars, and its own properties in its fold. I have read biographies on Disney, the making of the parks, went to the studio, watched documentaries like the American Experience special on Walt Disney on PBS. This film puts an emotional context to the filmmaking life of Walt Disney.  The DVD is available on the film’s website, it came with a nice script page signed by actor/producer and also an autographed photo.

The film is directed by Khoa Le with a screenplay by Arthur L. Bernstein and Armando Gutierrez, who are also producers. Gutierrez plays Ub Iwerks, the lead animator for Disney’s animated films. There is narration by Thomas Ian Nicholas (who starred in the American Pie films) as Walt Disney. He starts off with his boyhood in Marceline, Missouri, where he is busy sketching horses and saying goodbyes to the animals. His father, Elias Disney (Donn Lamkin), disapproves of his dreaming. Walt moves to Kansas and though inspired by animated films, his interest is discouraged.  It picks up with Disney (played by Nicholas) in Kansas City, 1919 coming to the farm of Edna (Natasha Sherritt) and his older brother, Roy (Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame). His brother tells him that he is moving to California to recover from tuberculosis in a veteran’s hospital. His wartime sketches gets him hired by Pesman. At the drawing tables, Walt shows his sketch of fellow artist, Ub. It is a partnership of a lifetime.

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Walt and Ub are let go and they go to a restaurant having coffee with Walt who says, “It should be about the quality of the work. Why is that people who run things lack vision?” This a running concept for Walt Disney’s story. Walt has an idea of forming his own company with Ub and shows him a barn. Fred Harman (Timothy Neil Williams), another animator from Pesman, joins the group. Walt has the idea of taking stories from the newspaper to make cartoons and thinks up the name, “Laugh-O-gram.” He takes the reel to theater owner, Frank L. Newman (Arthur L. Bernstein). They watch the reel in the theater and Newman agrees with Walt’s price 30 cents a foot which is how much it costs to make.
Walt returns to the barn with the news that reels were bought by Newman and the new investor so they move the Laugh-O-gram Studio to an office. Walt has come up with the idea of bringing live action with the cartoon. One of the artists notes that there is another artist, Friz who works for Pesman. A young man with a briefcase walks up to the studio. Walt meets with Isidore, “Friz” Freleng (Taylor Gray) who is legendary as the Looney Tunes animator. They love Freleng’s voices. The young man, Rudy Ising (David Henrie), is an artist, but doesn’t know about animation. Walt shows him a flip book of a baseball bat and ball. Late at night, Rudy cranks the camera while Walt sets up the frame. Walt goes to Mr. Newman, but he doesn’t pay for any of the animation. Walt yells at Ub and slams paperwork in frustration. He is evicted from his room. Walt returns to the studio to sleep.

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Alone, Disney sees a mouse on his drawing table nibbling on crumbs of his sandwich. Disney writes to the distributor of Felix the Cat cartoons in New York about his live action cartoon film. Walt is evicted from the building. He heads to Los Angeles in 1923 to stay with his disapproving Uncle Robert (Randy Molnar) and Aunt Charlotte (Jodie Sweetin, Stephanie in Full House and the new Fuller House). Walt meets with Roy at the hospital. They later team up for Disney Brothers Studio on the agreement that Walt doesn’t date anyone in the company. Walt brings back the young actress for the Alice comedies, Virginia Davis (Beatrice Taveras). They meet Lillian Bounds (Kate Katzman) who wants a job in ink and paint. She really is the center for Walt and later tells him when things fall apart and later says, “You have too much goodness inside of you that is why we’re all here.” He has a meeting with Margaret Winkler (Flora Bonfanti) and Charles Mintz (Conor Dubin) explain that they have trademarked the Alice films and can take them away from Disney. Mintz takes control of the films and sends George Winkler (Frank Licari) to look over Disney’s shoulder. There are some dark moments, glimpses of Disney history, and the struggle, risks, and triumphs of the Walt Disney Studio. Five Mickey Ears out of Five!

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