Walt Disney is one of the most famous men who ever lived, so it’s strange he didn’t receive a biopic until three years ago. And even then, Saving Mr. Banks isn’t exactly a biographical movie about the iconic entertainer so much as a slice of his life depicted on screen. Since then, though, Disney has been the subject of two truer biopics, neither of which you’re likely aware of in spite of his significance. They’re both low-budget efforts focused solely on his early years, and together they make for a fascinating double feature where one is so bad it’s good and the next is so much worse it’s even better.
You can view them in either order, but the first I watched – before I was even aware there are two – is 2015’s Walt Before Mickey. It’s the higher-profile of the dueling young Disney biopics, featuring such famous faces as Jon Heder, best known as the title character from Napoleon Dynamite (as Roy Disney), David Henrie, star of Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place (as animator Rudy Ising), and former child actress Jodie Sweetin, who played Stephanie Tanner on Full House and now the reboot, Fuller House (as Disney’s Aunt Charlotte). In the lead as Walt Disney is Thomas Ian Nicholas, of Rookie of the Year and the American Pie franchise.
I like Nicholas a lot, and here he’s so earnest, clearly excited for what must have seemed a breakout role, that he’s able to carry the picture on his appealing charm alone. Unfortunately, he’s not talented enough to get past the wooden dialogue and even stiffer direction from Khoa Le. He is commendable, though, especially for doing his best with a silly scene where a down-and-out Disney finds and befriends an actual mouse then rummages through trash to find them some rotting food to share. He’s also quite chipper during two whole scenes devoted to the origins of the man’s mustache, unintentionally appearing to be riffing on Johnny Depp’s performance in Ed Wood.
Well-intentioned as it is, the movie could have overcome its cheap production value and weak script, which was adapted from Timothy S. Susanin’s book of the same name (and for some reason has an on-screen credit for that book’s introduction by daughter Diane Disney) and primarily consists of scenes of characters talking about what they’re going to do about their financial woes rather than showing us visually interesting moments, but the biggest problem for Walt Before Mickey is that Walt’s life wasn’t really that interesting before Mickey. It feels like a stretched-out first act for a more exhaustive biopic. And the funny thing is, the movie ends with a quote from Disney stating, “It all started with Mickey,” which basically squashes any reason for this story to be told.
The other biopic, released in 2014, is titled As Dreamers Do: The Amazing Life of Walt Disney. There are no famous faces in this one, but it is narrated by country music star Travis Tritt. While Walt Before Mickey seems to be all first-act material, this one doesn’t even get that far, ending before Disney moved to Hollywood. It’s literally the first act of Walt Before Mickey, almost beat for beat but stretched further to reach its own feature length. We spend more time with the future animator as a little boy (Levi Cissell then older brother Lincoln Cissell) in Marceline, Missouri, getting into shenanigans “like Tom Sawyer” and drawing pictures for local drunks at the barber shop.
Here, too, a grown-up Disney finds and befriends a real mouse and here, too, we get the origin of the mustache, but otherwise it’s a pretty different kind of movie. Walt Before Mickey is all about Disney’s repetitive career ups and downs before he became a monumental success, and As Dreamers Do is about the man’s love for Main Street USA, his devotion to his country in the service of the Red Cross (where he meets a young Ray Kroc, though his full name is never given on screen*) and how he was helped along the way by good Christian folk and by being good Christian folk, himself. There are close ups of the Bible and occasional talk of God, but more than being an overly religious work, it’s just a hokey, wholesome, aww-shucks family film about a decent artist who in the end learns and then explains, in detail, what cel animation is. Who he becomes later hardly matters.
Because little happens from the time of Disney’s childhood until he begins selling animated shorts to a local cinema, As Dreamers Do contains a number of filler scenes that are of questionable relevance to anything. One has him showing a stranger how to hear a train approaching by putting your ear to the track. Another has Disney meeting a random guy who comes off as insanely attracted to a portrait he’s drawing of his aunt. And his short sequence as an ambulance driver during World War I and being introduced to cigarettes (which the film emphasizes as if he’d picked up a heroin habit) goes nowhere other than to show he was still drawing wherever he went.
So where’s the value in this double feature if they’re both such terrible movies? Besides their appeal in simply being about a film icon, they’re hard to look away from because of how goofy yet sincere they are. Especially watched back to back, they’re just too much, you won’t believe how two similar movies were made about Walt Disney with such fervor in place of money and quality. And you’ll laugh when ironically Disney says, in voiceover in Walt Before Mickey, “I was always focused on quality pictures.”
They are great fodder for drinking games – do shots during Walt Before Mickey any time there’s talk of money, investors, employees being paid, etc., and more shots during As Dreamers Do anytime someone says some rustic saying, like “that’s the bees knees,” or exaggeratedly pulls on his suspenders, and anytime the actor playing Ub Iwerks (William Haynes) opens his eyes way too wide. These two movies would also be great for the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot.
The strange thing about this pair of dueling biopics is they’re not exactly competitors. Both are distributed by the same company, Vision Films, which offers them for rent on Vimeo On Demand. Unfortunately they don’t have a special package deal for the duo. But if you get some friends together for some laughs coupled with a minuscule shred of film history, the rental price is worth it. I recommend them for parties celebrating the 50th anniversary if Disney’s death (on December 15th) throughout the year.
*As a final side note of trivia, it’s kind of interesting that Ray Kroc is in As Dreamers Do given that the only other movie where the famous head of McDonald’s is portrayed is in the upcoming biopic The Founder (by Michael Keaton), which is directed by John Lee Hancock, whose previous movie was Saving Mr. Banks.