Celebrating the upcoming centennial of Walt Disney’s birth, documentary “Walt: The Man Behind the Myth” is a straightforward summary of the life of the man as responsible as anyone else for transforming Hollywood into the capital of world entertainment. Saturated with interviews (more than 50 of them), docu sacrifices depth of analysis for full inclusion and wide accessibility, but it nonetheless provides an effective, informative and — using a remarkable storehouse of previously unseen home film footage and some darned great cartoons — pleasantly visual museum tour of an extraordinary life. It’s biography at its most authorized, but what would you expect? After all, the timeslot is called “The Wonderful World of Disney.”
Directed by Jean-Pierre Isbouts and written by Isbouts and Katherine and Richard Greene, docu begins with the opening of “Mary Poppins,” labeled here as the “pinnacle” of Disney’s career. From there, “Poppins” star and narrator Dick Van Dyke takes us back to Walt’s early days in Chicago and Kansas City.
Piece is persistently peppered with brief interviews with family members; biographers and historians; and animators, actors and friends. Their commentaries and anecdotes accompany early family photos and a collection of Walt’s earliest experiments with film, both live action and animation. The footage makes a nice point — that Walt’s career began when he was just having fun with his teenage friends.
After a tour of post-WWI France with the Red Cross and a failed first effort at starting an animation company, Walt and his brother Roy moved to Hollywood, where he landed a distributor for his cartoon shorts, was betrayed and had his character Oswald taken from him, and then created a certain mouse that roared. His collaborator Ub Iwerks is mentioned fairly prominently — he “refined” Mickey Mouse.
The middle third of the film, which depicts Disney’s innovations in mixing animation with sound (“Steamboat Willy”) and color (“Flowers and Trees”) and then creating full-length features of extraordinary artistry (“Snow White,” “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio”), reps the most compelling watching, especially because the story is being told by the works themselves.
Through the interviews with animators, film gives us a good sense of his devotion to artistry — he sent his animators to art school — and a decent sense of how Walt worked, his stern oversight as well as his genius for storytelling.
The more controversial aspects of his life get acknowledged but not delved into — the strike against the company in the early ’40s, his alleged anti-Semitism (which is simply dismissed).
What began as the story of a kid playing with a camera turns into the story of a man with a big toy train set, which leads to the visionary creation of the world’s most revolutionary theme park. As he hits his most successful years, the home movies give way to archival footage of Disney’s television appearances.
While co-workers give us a picture of Walt as boss and buddy, three contributors begin to dominate the telling of the overall story. Walt’s daughter Diane makes sure we get a sense of her father as a caring and deeply likable man, biographer Bob Thomas fills us in on other details both personal and business-related, while animation expert Charles Solomon puts his achievements into historical perspective.
We’re also given a sense of the unfulfilled — where might Disney have taken animation had WWII not impaired the worldwide market for his films? What might Epcot have become had Walt lived to lead the project as he planned?
The makers of this documentary do come off as journalists more than storytellers, and facts predominate over entertainment value or the appreciation of the story’s deeper cultural significance. But for Disney, history, animation and movie buffs, “Walt: The Man Behind the Myth” lays out a life story that continues to have an impact.