There are very few Floridian stereotypes I fit. I am not a skinny blond chick with a perpetual tan. I don’t live at the beach or wear alligator boots. I am, however, a crazy Disney fan. Okay, maybe not ‘crazy’, but borderline insane when it comes to Disneyana. I love behind the scenes and trivia when it comes to the Theme Parks and Studios. Before I started Project:100, I had started watching a recent trilogy of Disney-related documentaries. Two of them (Walt & El Grupo and The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story) are on Netflix Instant and the third (Waking Sleeping Beauty) was gotten the “old fashioned” way with a disc in the mail. Thought I am focused on my Project:100, it would be a crime to let these three films go by unmentioned.
1. Walt & El Grupo (2008)
Set between the animators strike of 1940 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, we get a rare glimpse into Walt’s travels through South America. Coming off the success of Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia, Walt’s animation studio was infiltrated by unions. Hurt and blindsided by the actions of his animators, he sought a chance to get away. Enter President Roosevelt and the U.S. Government. Nazis were touring through South American countries trying to gain sympathies and creating alliances. The US Government reached out to Walt in an attempt to take a good will mission to South America and try to sway any Nazi influences. Unsure of the idea of a good will mission at first, it was proposed to him that he take a group of artists, writers, and musicians with him. This would serve as a research trip and give them new material to use once they returned state side. The documentary then follows the highs and lows of the trip as they skipped across South America, trying to soak in the culture and put a nice face on the US. Using letters, photographs, home video, and sketches from the trip, the story is told through first hand accounts from the people on the trip. This documentary does an amazing job in mixing both the action of the trip (letting the story to unfold organically) and some of the effects it had on the people involved. My biggest issue was that some of the moments were held out a little longer then I would have like. The subject was very rich and I can imagine it would be difficult to let any of the source material go to waste. I would also recommend anyone who wants to watch it to have a general idea of the political climate in South America during his visit. Overall an excellent documentary that brings a lot of insight to Walt Disney and the creation of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
2. The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009)
There is no doubt that you’ve heard at least one of their songs in your life. They were the soundtrack to Disney in the 50s and 60s. From the catchy (and never ending) ‘It’s A Small World’ to the deeper ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’, The Sherman Brothers’ were an unstoppable team. Yet, as their success grew, their personal relationship became strained to the point that they eventually didn’t speak to one another outside of the professional environment. The film documents them from the earliest years when they both engaged in music and writing (thought Robert was more into writing then Richard) under the wing of their songwriter father, Al Sherman. Robert enlisted early, by permission of his parents, and served in WWII. He had he unfortunate task of leading men into Dachau only hours after the German’s had fled. The sights he had seen undoubtedly changed him (as many of the people within the documentary note) and caused a gap between him and Richard to start widening. We watch as they are thrown together by fate and go on to create some of the most well know family film tunes. The film never stops to point out the irony that while they smiled and sang these beautiful numbers when the camera’s roll, they barely spoke to one another outside of work. The film ultimately builds to a forced reunion that goes just about as well as you’d expect. Directed by the sons of each man, it serves to show the very human side of a seemingly perfect couple. Coming from an Italian family that disowns one another every other week (seriously, I just found out an Aunt of mine no longer considers us ‘family’) the film doesn’t shock as much as I suppose they hope it does. It’s worth your time, especially if your a fan of Disney music, but it was my least favorite of the three simply because it only serves to remind me of my own silly family.
3. Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
Walt Disney Studios has never been a stranger to crisis. Yet, none seemed so bleak then that of the animation department in the 80s. Like a ship lost at sea, the animators had no real strong captain to steer them in the right direction. Threats of breaking up the Disney Company (not doing well itself) were quite real. Enter the corporate team of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffery Katzenberg. While Eisner and Wells were more involved with the overall operations of the company, Katzenberg was put directly in charge of the Studio aspect. His first action was to beef up the live action department and reset the animation department. Of course, this was meant with a great amount of resistance from many of the artists. He went so far as to move them out of the original animation studio (built by Walt in 1939) into a warehouse-cubicle environment. We see the maelstrom that comes with Katzenberg’s “My way or the highway” attitude. His hands on attitude annoyed and offended many of the animators, but it also worked in refocusing them. As the department becomes more formed, we started getting the amazing films we all grew up loving. Two points in the film tug so deeply at the viewers hearts: losing Frank Wells and Howard Ashman. Both men were a very important part to the reinvention of the company and losing them really put a big hole in the company. It would be Wells’ death that would lead to the downfall of Katzenberg and mark an end to a very unique chapter in Disney History. What makes the documentary almost singularly unique is it’s lack of new onscreen interviews. Voice over interviews were used, but all the footage was from the time in which the film was made. News interviews and home videos are used in such a fantastic way that you are really involved with the people. Also: how can you not love the Apocalypse Now reenactment? Of the three, this film was my favorite. Maybe it was because of the fact I was a youngling when these movies came out and can fully appreciate the work that went behind them as I’ve gotten older. A lovely trio of films that all bring a unique insight into all the different aspects with the history of The Walt Disney Company and the people involved.