John Lee Hancock’s 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks was an entertaining—if inoffensively milquetoast—examination of Walt Disney’s relationship with P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins and eventual Disney cash cow. But for as charming as Saving Mr. Banks could be, it was haunted by the specter of Walt Disney’s real-life reputation: a fascistic perfectionist, a character flaw that is white-washed away in Tom Hanks’ performance. If Saving Mr. Banks tended to romanticize Disney’s life and look the other way at his less-than-reputable work ethic, then Walt Before Mickey (a dreadful title, to be sure), the feature film debut from director Khoa Le, turns Walt Disney’s (this time around it’s Thomas Ian Nichols donning the mustache) life into a nauseatingly saccharine translation of a rags-to-riches underdog story. But unlike Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks, there isn’t an ounce of charm that can be wrung out of the rigid and bland Walt Before Mickey.
The film focuses on the eventual formation of Disney Studios via slogging through Walt Disney’s numerous early failures, as animation had yet to become a bankable medium of American pop-culture. Joined by his brother Roy (played by Jon Heder, who—still trying to shake Napoleon Dynamite more than a decade later—is out of his depth here) and a number of talented illustrators, Disney (or Diz as his friends apparently called him) fights the establishment and carves out his path into the world of animation. The majority of the film’s tension arises from a constant question of will-he-or-won’t-he-succeed?. But there’s no accounting for hindsight, and making the future of Walt Disney’s career—a career that, in 2015, we know turns into a ubiquitous multi-billion dollar conglomerate—the central conflict, means removing any conflict at all.
I’m not one to rail against sentimentality (my two favorite films of the year—Inside Out and Brooklyn—revel in the sentimental), but Walt Before Mickey is so mawkish it teeters toward becoming a mockery of itself. The screenplay is littered with forced allusions to Disney films that will force an eye roll from even the most devoted Disney acolyte (when trying to rally the troops Disney says, with no irony from the screenwriters, “I wished upon a star and look what it gave me”). And every seemingly banal trait of Walt Disney, the man, is presented as a triumphant representation of what the image Walt Disney conjures years after his death (his decision to not shave off his newly grown—and now signature—mustache coincides with the film’s emotional climax). The film’s maudlin storytelling permeates every aspect of the film. The score (problematic from the start, as the music is used as a cynical attempt to guide the audience’s emotions rather than complement the action of the film) is a hackneyed composition of innocuous piano melodies, more suited for a Cialis commercial than a feature film.
Walt Before Mickey suffers most from an adapted screenplay (written by Arthur Bernstein and Armando Gutierrez) that resembles a grade school book review more than a completed script. Only one-hour and forty-five minutes (curiously, IMDb lists the film’s runtime as two hours on the nose), the film feels both scant and bloated. Endless vignettes of Disney and his crew of hopeful artists are presented and recycled, all the while an awful voiceover narrates the larger story elements (seemingly for no other reason than to challenge every critic to write a review of Walt Before Mickey without uttering the phrase “show don’t tell”) making the film feel more like a Disney ride through a diorama of Walt Disney’s career (and the performances are as emotionally complex as an animatronic Hollander in the It’s All Small World ride). The majority of the screenplay—adapted from Timothy Susasin’s biography of the same name—dresses up empty platitudes as character epiphanies resulting in a film that feels as though it’s written exclusively with lines found in greeting cards (in the film’s most cringe inducing scene, Disney—amidst great creative frustration—flashes back to his childhood to receive this line: “Let me tell you something about life—always finish what you start and anything worth doing is worth doing well.”).
Though the source material was sanctioned by the Disney Estate (Diane Disney wrote the forward to Susani’s biography of her father) it’s hard to believe that Walt himself wouldn’t be a little embarrassed at the schmaltzy depiction of his early years. When Mickey Mouse finally makes an appearance, it’s the film’s only moment of excitement—as it both signals the end of Walt Before Mickey and reminds audiences of why Walt Disney’s vision became such a singular sensation.
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.