Walt Disney deserves to have good movies, both fiction and nonfiction, made about him. The company he built is one of the most potent cultural forces on Earth. The man himself had a fascinating personal history. But there is a frustrating lack of good cinema about him, and that is due to his continued influence in the industry. The Walt Disney Company is fanatical in its efforts to maintain a nigh-utopian image of itself and its founder and maintains a stranglehold over the ownership of the majority of primary documents that could help a documentarian. When Richard Schickel wrote a biography of Disney that took a critical eye to his work (1997’s The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney), the company refused to let the book use any photographs of him.
Until the arrival of the new film Saving Mr. Banks, no major fictional piece of work had presented Walt Disney on screen. Now here he is — and played by Tom Hanks, no less. It’s a pity that the movie is a chunk of poisoned saccharine. It erases everything interesting about the making of Mary Poppins and the push and pull between Disney and author P.L. Travers, instead settling for trite ideas about processing pain through art. The movie holds Disney aloft as a nigh-omnipotent being of wonder and whimsy, a portrayal that’s as phony as it is uninteresting.
The frustrating thing about recommending a doc option for this film is that all the notable documentaries about Walt Disney and his company are also made by Walt Disney Studios. So, none of them can be wholly considered trustworthy. A documentarian must work free of artistic constraints, and making a film about a major corporation at the behest of that same corporation is the biggest constraint I can think of. Still, that does not mean that these films cannot be informative, entertaining, meaningful or some combination of the three. All of them have something to offer for anyone interested in learning about the history of Disney and the House of Mouse.
Walt: The Man Behind the Myth begins where Saving Mr. Banks ends, at the premiere of Mary Poppins. It then goes on to chronicle the whole of Walt Disney’s life. Given that it’s produced by the Walt Disney Museum, this film can serve as little more than the “party line” version of Disney, sanitized to the max. That and the shoddy production values make the film difficult to recommend. But I consider it an interesting case study in how Disney spins its own mythology, of which Banks serves as another example. Though it purports to go “behind the myth,” it instead actually builds Walt Disney up as a mythological being. Events like the invention of Mickey Mouse are elevated to titanic importance. The doc is not good, but it is interesting in a way that Banks isn’t.
Walt & El Grupo, like Banks, goes behind the scenes of a specific Disney classic, although Saludos Amigos is not nearly as revered as Mary Poppins. It follows Disney and a team of writers, producers and animators (the titular “el grupo”) as they take a trip through South America in 1941. The U.S. State Department specifically commissioned this journey as a gesture of goodwill towards the South American governments, with whom they hoped to foster good relations. The film is interesting as a picture of a time when the Disney company’s future seemed in doubt, as it was in dire financial straits. It also gives audiences a glimpse of a less guarded, more candid Walt Disney than we’re used to seeing. Of course, it also sort of, kind of suggests that Disney was responsible for South America not joining the Nazis during World War II, so take it with a grain of salt.
Frank and Ollie (directed by Theodore Thomas, who also did Walt & El Grupo) is not about Walt Disney but rather two of his most prolific and trusted artists, both of whom also worked on Mary Poppins. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were part of the “Nine Old Men,” Disney’s core group of animators employed on most of the studio’s films for the first few decades of its existence. By the time he started making feature films, Disney was more of a producer and idea man, and so it was up to people like Thomas and Johnston to actually draw the movies. A lot of the historical information is old news to anyone familiar with the company, but watching the duo demonstrate the fundamentals of animation is highly entertaining. Additionally, the movie is a warm look at enduring friendship.
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story looks at another pair of artists who helped make Mary Poppins: brothers Richard and Robert Sherman. They were songwriters who composed the music and lyrics for some of the most enduring tunes from the Disney canon. Besides Mary Poppins, they also did the soundtracks for The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and the various Winnie the Pooh films, among others. Like Frank and Ollie, it examines a long partnership, although this one covers a relationship that had a few downs mixed in with the ups, since sibling rivalry also factored into it. The film was directed and produced by the brothers’ sons, so it is more of a tribute than a biography, but it’s still engaging.
The Walt Disney Company shows us why it is so important that filmmakers be free in all their endeavors. These movies are more interesting when judged from a remove, rather than on their own terms. How they frame their carefully-selected information reveals what Disney wants the public to know, whether it’s subtle or overt. Still, all of these documentaries are better prospects than Saving Mr. Banks, which contains almost no truth whatsoever.