Walt Before Mickey

Year: 2015
Production Co: Conglomerate Media
Director: Khoa Le
Writer: Timothy Susanin/Arthur L Bernstein/Armando Gutierrez/Frank Licari
Cast: Thomas Ian Nichols, Jon Heder

I watched this movie for the same reason I liked the work of Michael Sheen the many times he played Tony Blair – the reason I so like movies about real events depicting real people who I remember from the events or know from history.

I never expect the definitive, documentary-like account of events in biopics like this – by their nature they're the product of someone responding to something in a real life story and making up a tale about it – but I always feel like if you have enough of a bullshit meter you can glean what really happened from the elements of real life that make up the narrative.

In this case it's a very American story of entrepreneurship as the youthful Walt Disney (Thomas Ian Nichols, like a cross between a young clone of David Naughton and a wisecracking Italian kid from Brooklyn) struggles to get a fledgling animation studio off the ground in the face of much bigger and more powerful competition, and doing so at a time when animation as an art form is on a downswing.

We meet Walt as a kid growing up poor on a farm in the midwest, surrounded by a loving family who encourages but doesn't really understand his drive to draw funny creatures. It's an abmition that manifests itself later when he rises through the ranks of the commercial art world and finally establishes his own studio, employing a small cadre of collaborators who smoke as much as they draw and rally behind Walt even when things get so bad he can't pay them.

It's a fairly plain rags to riches story with plenty of cinematic stumbles and obstacles and a script that understands film and literary motifs well enough. At one point – unable to pay the lease on his premises and temporarily homeless – Walt is locked out of his studio and sits in the street, despondent, when a fearless mouse scurries up and makes friends with him (foreshadow much?).

So that's the story – it's very procedural and it's directed and acted with as much investment and energy as everyone involved seems to be able to muster. The deficiencies seem to be merely shortfalls in skill. It's not a big budget thing from a Hollywood production company, it feels more like a cheapie from one of those companies that makes midday TV or faith-based movies.

In the same way, it's not exactly toothless or hagiographic with its subject but it doesn't have any bite, seeming to just plod along from idea to idea without much thought of the tone or theme.

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