Considering he is one of the most influential entertainers of the 20th Century, Walt Disney has, surprisingly, pretty much eluded the big screen biopic treatment. Aside from supporting turns in the TV movie A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story and the Disney Studios' own Saving Mr. Banks (played by Tom Hanks), "Uncle Walt" hasn't even appeared many times as an onscreen character, although he has been the subject of such documentaries as the Disney Family-approved Walt: The Man Behind the Myth and this year's excellent Walt Disney via PBS' American Experience.
So it is ironic that not one but two screen biographies of Disney have appeared in the last two years, both low budget attempts from small independent studios and both focusing on his early years as a struggling animator prior to making it big thanks to a certain cartoon mouse. The first was last year's low-rated As Dreamers Do (now available on Amazon Prime) while the second, Walt Before Mickey (a.k.a. The Dreamer) was just released yesterday on what was the 114th anniversary of Walt's birth.
Of the two, the latter at least has some name recognition in the cast, with American Pie's Thomas Ian Nicholas as Walt and Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder, as his sensible older brother Roy. Sadly, the film doesn't have much more going for it aside from those meager assets, bogged down as it is by a screenplay (adapted from the book of the same name by Timothy Susanin by the film's producers Arthur L. Bernstein and Armando Gutierrez, who also plays legendary animator/co-creator of Mickey Mouse Ub Iwerks) laden with trite homespun platitudes ("Anything worth doing is worth doing well") and clunky allusions to its main character's impending greatness, visualized by director Khoa Le as, you guessed it, a friendly mouse that magically shows up when Walt needs him most.
Like cute animal sidekicks, every Disney movie (even, apparently, movies about him) has a cackling, over-the-top villain to jeopardize the protagonist's happily ever after, and here it is Charles Mintz (Conor Dubin), distributor of Disney's early Alice comedies (a series that combined a live action little girl's adventures in an animated wonderland), who eventually screwed Walt out of ownership of his work and poached his artists out from under him. This lead to Walt's last ditch shot at success, his near-mythic creation of... Mortimer Mouse (later, thankfully, renamed Mickey).
While Walt Before Mickey certainly has its heart in the right place, it can't overcome its mostly amateurish cast (I don't know who is worse, Kate Katzman as Walt's wife Lillian or Frank Licari as Mintz's Boris Badenov-accented lackey) and low production values (the costumers and prop crew must have got a great deal on white men's dress shirts and non-filtered cigarettes considering their practically fetishized onscreen abundances). As it is, we're still waiting for that big budget, complete biopic of the man behind the mouse; we've always imagined a splashy Hollywood musical would be best.
MD Rating: C
Walt Before Mickey is now available on DVD and Streaming:
Review by Kirby Holt, creator and editor of Movie Dearest, The QuOD: The Queer Online Database and the Out Movie Guide.