Walking the red carpet on Friday for the world premiere of Walt Before Mickey at the inaugural Skyway Film Festival, director Khoa Le seemed at ease, despite his feature-length debut only moments from opening in the Land of Disney itself. Written by Arthur Bernstein and Armando Gutierrez (who also stars) and from the book of the same name by Timothy Susanin, Walt Before Mickey chronicles the early struggles of the visionary artist and his initial forays into animation fraught with pitfalls and potholes. And like the subject, the film, starring Thomas Ian Nicholas (American Pie) as Disney and Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) as older brother, Roy, had its own rocky start, but nothing Le says his team couldn’t overcome.
“There was no vision when I came on board,” said Le, who described his hire as “last minute,” being brought into the project a mere three weeks before shooting began and without a finalized script. With two possible scripts in motion, Le set to work combining the plotlines into one cohesive narrative in time for production to begin. “Usually I’m the type of director who likes to take my time and be very organized, but opportunity comes in all different shapes and forms and you have to be prepared,” said Le. “And a great opportunity comes with challenges, with adversity.”
Among the challenges for the production was to effectively recreate the look and feel of 1920s California and the studios and backlots that comprised the young Disney’s stomping grounds. In terms of both characters and sets, this means handling period-specific details that Le readily admits he was not an expert on prior to production. “That’s the part where you work with a great team,” sad Le. “You rely on people who studied the era and you listen to them.”
“You have to be unselfish,” Le continued. “You’re coming on board as the person leading a team and their careers are counting on you. That’s what I’m thinking about. I didn’t care about my name.”
Despite the hurdles, the team stepped up, says Le, and before the first day wrapped it felt like it was all coming together. “Within the first ten minutes of shooting, I knew what was going to happen,” said Le.
The resulting film, a charming love letter of a tale to one of, if not the, greatest animator ever to have lived and graced the screen, big or small, brims to overflowing with affection for its subject. Whether defying his serious=minded upbringing or battling studio schemers, Disney perseveres. We feel the joy of early victories, the spirit of possibility and the reality of failure. At his lowest, we see charity amongst despair. And while the ending is a foregone conclusion, Le makes you feel the drama and long for that cathartic triumph.
“We’ve all grown up with Disney. It’s part of everybody’s life,” said Le, on the weight of his subject. “When you think of your childhood, you think about Disney.”