The creator of Mickey Mouse has long stood in the considerable shadow of Walt Disney, but now the undeserved obscurity of the late genius animator Ub Iwerks is swept aside in the finely crafted, handsome docu “The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story.” Iwerks’ granddaughter Leslie Iwerks has labored several years to assemble stunning, rare footage and interview aging animators who worked with Iwerks and Disney, all with funding from the very studio Iwerks helped start, bitterly left and rejoined years later. After a weeklong Oscar-qualifying run at the Disney-run El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, the pic should roll out to specialized urban cinemas to thrill animation fans, finishing with a long, durable life on the Disney Channel and on video.
Although this project’s impetus was to set the record straight about the preeminent contribution of Iwerks (whose first name rhymes with “hub”) to the development of film animation — and specifically that it was he, not Walt, who created Mickey on paper — the final product is a larger, more encompassing account of animation’s early years, and how yesterday’s techniques directly influence today’s toon boom.
Though little is made here of the source of Iwerks’ immense artistic drive (he once produced 700 drawings in a day for Mickey’s debut, “Steamboat Willie”), his poverty-stricken Kansas City childhood after the turn of the century is clear enough, along with a deadbeat dad who instilled in the boy an interest in new film technology for which he would eventually become a key innovator.
In 1919, Iwerks met co-worker Disney at a Kansas City commercial art studio, and the pair of 18-year-olds set off on an up-and-down career path that would lead them to create such startling early curiosities as the satirical and topical “Laugh-O-Grams” series and “Alice in Cartoonland,” which placed young actress Virginia Davis’ live action inside an animated world. The turning point proved to be Roy Disney’s luring of Walt to Burbank, followed by uber-salesman Walt luring the invaluable Iwerks west to the Disney Bros. Studio.
Docu establishes a clear perspective on the nuts and bolts of the animation process as well the unique nature of Iwerks’ abilities. Numerous clips display his often dark and subversive imagination at play, supported by a superb kinetic sense and a signature style that gave characters wonderfully elastic bodies and even detachable body parts. The studio’s first hit character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, bears remarkable resemblance to his follow-up, Mickey, whom Iwerks drew in a frenzy of activity when entrepreneur Charles Mintz withdrew support for the studio and took Oswald with him.
Mickey’s stardom became a mixed blessing for Iwerks, who enjoyed the success but whose methods (frequently described here by historians and those who knew him as “anarchistic”) clashed with the increasingly corporate Disney. Nevertheless, Iwerks managed to carry over the early naughtiness of Mickey — later much toned down — into his extraordinary “Silly Symphonies” series, which remains a pinnacle of cartooning.
Pic sidesteps well-known issue of Walt’s claim as Mickey’s creator, which as much as anything spurred Iwerks to leave and set up his own operation, where he hatched far more radical and imaginative cartoon shorts than the Disney machine while training a generation of future toon masters, including Chuck Jones.
Iwerks’ eventual return to the Disney fold meant that the iconoclast had to go in the closet (forced also by the censorious Hays Code, which gets a clever lampooning here). But it also meant that Disney’s riches gave the engineer in Iwerks the freedom to invent new animation processes, which became the focus of the last half of his life. His achievements in this area boggle the mind — from the multiplane and traveling matte cameras and photocopying processes eliminating the need for inkers, to his innovative anamorphic process for “Sleeping Beauty” and his creation of the wet gate printer.
Even Disneyland bears the Iwerks stamp, in such features as the 360-degree cinema and “Meet Mr. Lincoln.” Iwerks’ darkest work had to be made away from Disney, however, with his memorable effects for Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
The case for this Renaissance man is made forcefully by an articulate lineup of informed talking heads, including critic-historian Leonard Maltin, animators Mark Kausler and John (“Toy Story”) Lasseter and historian Russell Merritt. But Iwerks, who died in 1971, perhaps acknowledging Walt Disney’s critical role, makes the wisest comment via son Don: “The key isn’t creating it. It’s what you do with it.”