Lots of classic footage in feature-length documentary on the Walt Disney studio
"It All Started with a Mouse: The Disney Story" (1989) covers the saga of Walt Disney from his not-so-humble beginnings as an ambitious aspiring cartoonist and animator in Kansas City to the revival of his legacy in the late 1980s when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over management of the struggling Disney studio and gave new life to both its live-action and animation divisions. The film picks and chooses what it wants to cover along the way, with lots of attention paid, for instance, to SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO and BAMBI, but very little to anything in the immediate postwar era aside from snippets of Disneyland and some of the TV shows. It then zips past the later decades to drop down in the 1980s and promote the studio's then-newest offerings, most notably WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988).
In the segments on classic Disney animation, there are lots of interview snippets with Disney staffers from the golden age of the studio, including prominent animators Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and other key personnel. Roy E. Disney, son of Roy Disney, Walt's brother and partner in the studio, is interviewed as well. We see lots of footage from the aforementioned classic Disney features, as well as from the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence in FANTASIA, but also footage from the short cartoons, "Father Noah's Ark," "The Old Mill," and "Clock Cleaners." There is also plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, including a fascinating segment, narrated by Walt, that demonstrates how the multiplane camera worked, as shown by blueprints and animated diagrams, followed by footage of a finished scene that showed how this "super cartoon camera" allowed different levels of background to move at different paces in order to duplicate the actual perspective that a viewer experiences when traveling through a landscape. We're then shown scenes from "The Old Mill" to further demonstrate the use of this camera. There's also a segment where Walt narrates a demonstration of how a scene of Mickey Mouse walking down a country road is animated to show the background moving behind him.
These segments are valuable for aspiring animators and animation historians because they include lots of discussion of character design and character movement, as well as perspective, with visual aids provided by pencil tests, drawings and film clips. Sometimes, an artist or craftsman will play a scene on video and stop and start it to demonstrate the technique he's discussing. For Disney historians, there are eyewitness accounts of Disney's unique method of acting out a story for his animators to show them what he wanted. In one instance, back in 1934, Disney called all his animators into a screening room on the lot for an evening session where he first acted out his imagined Snow White story for the entire group from start to finish. This was to become, of course, the studio's first feature-length animated film, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937). Accounts like this offer a remarkable window into Disney's working methods.
All of these segments would have made a fascinating one-hour documentary on classic Disney animation. In fact, they probably have enough segments like these in the Disney archive to make a whole series on Disney animation techniques. But in this film, after the Disneyland/Disney World segment ends at the 69-minute mark, the final 15 minutes of this 84-minute film focus on the then-new management and their strategies for revitalizing the Disney brand. There are clips from the studio's then-latest fully-animated feature, OLIVER & COMPANY (1988), and extensive footage from the live-action/animation hybrid, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, accompanied by comments from the film's animation director, Richard Williams, who describes various innovations in the film's animation techniques. The interview segments with Eisner, the company's chairman, and Katzenberg, the studio's chairman, were shot when the two men were on the cusp of the high points of their partnership, which would eventually dissolve in acrimony in 1994, six years after these interviews, when Eisner fired Katzenberg just as THE LION KING was racking up record box office receipts. Curiously, the film that sparked the resurgence of the Disney Studio's animation unit, THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989), is never mentioned here, even though it was already in production when these interviews were shot. Still, as a capsule moment of a key turning point in Disney Studio history, this segment is invaluable for its insights into studio management and the particular quirks both Eisner and Katzenberg brought to the enterprise.
This film does not appear to be available on home video nor can it be found on YouTube. For this review I was able to screen a copy taped off the Disney Channel 20-odd years ago.
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