For those who are interested in the Disney studio itself, in the creative geniuses behind some of the most beloved Disney movies, Disney has produced some quality content to check out. These documentaries show talented filmmakers, animators, composers, writers, actors and actresses, even executives trying their best to make a quality Disney (and Pixar) movie. Because the movies are produced by Disney, there is the concern that the documentaries are “sanitized,” that is removed of any elements that might indicate strife between people in the company. However, while that is not quite the case, there is still one documentary not available to the public that is attributed in part due to the internal conflict in making the movie.
Frank and Ollie (1995) might easily been seen as the most sanitized of the documentaries, but that would be discounting the good things within. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, were two of the legendary “Nine Old Men” that were head animators at Disney during the early years, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. What shines through are Frank and Ollie’s commitment to the craft (for example, they would act out scenes and then the finished animation would be shown) and their lifelong friendship. It’s worth checking out just to see the talent of these incredible animators.
The Pixar Story (2007) follows Pixar from its very beginning as a tiny computer animation department at Lucasfilm to the powerhouse studio it is today. What is particularly interesting is watching Pixar’s pre-Toy Story years: how John Lasseter and the people he worked with explored the emerging computer animation field and created shorts that people gathered around. It also doesn’t shy away from troubles within the production (for example, Toy Story originally had Woody to be a very sarcastic, very mean and unpleasant character in order to be “edgy”). The movie is available on the Wall-E DVD set.
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009) tells of Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman, legendary songwriters employed by Disney. They are known not only for songs from movies like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, but also some of theme tunes in the Disney Parks. Their skill with collaboration shines through, but also their eventual distance and estrangement from each other. While both got along well professionally, they did not spend time together personally and ultimately Robert moved to England and the brothers rarely, if ever, talk with each other. The movie was made by the sons of the brothers who met and decided to tell their story.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) is a fascinating, impressive film that traces nine years at Walt Disney Animation, from 1985 with The Black Caldron to 1994 with The Lion King. At the beginning of the film, Disney Animation was floundering and the movies made were getting awful reviews and terrible box office receipts. With a change-up in leadership and an influx of new animators, the studio began the time that is known as the Disney Renaissance, when every movie (beginning with A Little Mermaid) was a huge critical and box office success. However, the road to success and living with success is not easy, and the movie also shows the difficulties executives and animators had keeping their egos in check.
Walt and El Groupo (2009), made by the same people who made Frank and Ollie, traces Walt Disney’s trip to Latin America in 1941, partly as gesture of good will and partly to make a series of film with Latin American themes. Walt Disney and the animators are shown to be excited and eager to learn about the culture of the countries of South America. With tons of film footage from the era and interviews with those still living, it is a fascinating story of a particular period in the early Disney Studio’s life.
The Sweatbox (2002) is not legally available to the public, but is a fascinating story of tracing the history of the making of The Emperor’s New Groove. Originally called Kingdom of the Sun, the movie is produced and directed by Trudie Styler, who is the wife of musician Sting. Sting was asked to create the music for Kingdom of the Sun, and as part of the deal Trudie was able to make documentary about the making of the movie. Unfortunately, Kingdom of the Sun tested very poorly, and the people in charge of the film had to scramble to remake the movie to something worthy of release. Obviously, the movie tries to paint a realistic picture of what happens when making a movie does not go easily, and the hard choices that had to be made. One day I hope Disney will release this film to the public, and we can see the making of the movie that never was, Kingdom of the Sun.
All of these films show the hard of work and dedication of imperfect people trying to create great art, which is a fantastic Disney movie. They don’t always succeed, but their stories are fascinating tales of how it is to work at Disney. These movies inspire the creators of movies to continue to create more movies to entertain and delight audiences around the world.