Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Trio of Disney Docs

Since I enjoyed "Waking Sleeping Beauty," an insider's look at what was going on behind the scenes of the 90s Disney animation Renaissance, I thought I'd take in some of the other Disney-themed documentaries that have been made in recent years. I went through a trio of them over the weekend: "The PIXAR Story" from 2007, "Walt & El Grupo," from 2008, and "The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story," from 2009. A couple of points need to made right off. The films were all produced with the cooperation of the Walt Disney Company, giving the filmmakers access to clips and music and other IP, so of course the documentaries are very complimentary towards the Mouse. However, they don't indulge in much corporate cheerleading for Disney, and never play like the thinly disguised commercials that some of the their older projects were - though the PIXAR doc comes close at times. Still, one should take note that all three films were all made by people with close family ties to Disney. "The Boys" coming from the sons of Robert and Richard Sherman is no surprise, but more eyebrow-raising is Leslie Iwerks, daughter of the legendary animator Ub Iwerks, directing "The PIXAR Story," and "Walt & El Grupo," being helmed by Ted Thomas, son of another beloved animator, Frank Thomas. So clearly, there's bias at work here from the outset.

But on to the films. "The PIXAR Story" gets a lot of mileage out of having most exciting narrative. The Cinderella story of PIXAR's rise is tremendously interesting stuff, and the doc is great at putting together all the little bits and pieces of early CGI animation history that I've only seen piecemeal from other sources. The archival footage is always great to see, and with the recent passing of Steve Jobs, his appearances are especially poignant. Unfortunately, that all stops after the release of "Toy Story," when an animation nut like me starts noticing that a lot important context, like PIXAR's ongoing battle with Dreamworks' animation division, is barely alluded to. I mean, come on. The biggest challenge with "A Bug's Life" wasn't the crowd scenes or the fear of a sophomore slump, but the fact that Jeffrey Katzenberg was gunning for them with "Antz," which beat "Bug's Life" to the theaters by four weeks. The more recent material is also weaker, containing a lot of aspirational talk for the future of the Disney/PIXAR partnership, which had only just been cemented when the film was finished. There's even a substantial segment devoted to talking up the return of traditional animation, a venture which hasn't turned out so well. Still, "The PIXAR Story" is a fun watch, very accessible, and has a lot of good, geeky animation history in it.

"Walt & El Grupo" will likely only be of interest to real Disney buffs, as it chronicles the 1941 goodwill tour of South America that the US State Department sent Disney and a a group of his employees on, the "El Grupo" of the title. We also get a rather one-sided look at the notorious Disney Studio strike that was going on around the same time, but this is about as in depth as I've ever seen Disney (both man and studio) ever address the subject. Most of the film is taken up with chronicling the trip through Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. Since El Grupo and the people they met in South America are mostly deceased, we have to make do with the second-hand reminiscences of various relatives, giving the whole film the feel of an extended photo album review. With a very meandering, incidental narrative and too many people to follow, the whole middle section has a tendency to blur together. Also, though the trip was considered a success, the filmmakers don't do a particularly good job of convincing us that it had much impact on either Disney or relations with South America. It certainly didn't warrant an entire 107 minute documentary film. To hammer the point home, the animated feature that was produced as a result of the South America trip, "Saludos Amigos," was mostly well-received at the time of release, but it's largely forgotten today, a curiosity item like this documentary.

Finally, "The Boys" certainly features subject matter worthy of examination - the careers of the songwriting Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard. The pair was responsible for many Disney earworms, from the songs in "Mary Poppins" and "The Jungle Book" to "It's a Small World." However, their non-Disney work gets a bit sidelined here, which is a shame. "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" gets a few minutes, since it was one of the most popular and enduring films they worked on, but other late career highs like "The Slipper and the Rose" are glossed over quickly. What's really intriguing is the family drama that frames the whole feature. Richard and Robert Sherman never got along all that well, and were estranged for decades in later life. "The Boys" was put together by their sons in the hopes of mending some fences, but the brothers don't open up much about the fallout or the reconciliation process. Much left unsaid does show up onscreen, however, such as the uptick in recent collaborations between the pair, including work on the new stage versions of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Mary Poppins." Of the three docs, this is easily my favorite. The execution's a little bumpy, but it's so well intentioned, and so clearly a labor of love, it won me over. And frankly, I suspect I'd like any excuse to revisit the Shermans' catalog.

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