Disney has one of the most notoriously, almost compulsively, meticulous archives in film history. And it has been gratifying to see them put it to good use in the past few years in their documentary work. Coming on the heels of the riveting Waking Sleeping Beauty, both Walt And El Grupo and The Boys (also Disney And Dali, included on the Fantasia Blu Ray) stand alongside the former title as a scrupulous and refreshingly unguarded look into the Disney legacy.
Walt And El Grupo is a look at the good will tour, that Disney took to South America in an effort to ignore his striking workforce, shore up his struggling studio with government contracts and do what he could to halt the spread of Nazism while he was at it. It is a good deal less urgent then Waking Sleeping Beauty and at forty minutes over that films runtime it’s a great deal saggier. A great deal of this time is spent with family members of the deceased principles telling second hand stories and reading their correspondents and problematic postcard shallow depictions of the countries in question. Both of which are downright home movieish. Only Argentina, usually considered the most stable of the three countries visited, gives any lip service to the political turmoil that is South America. The film oddly enough also makes time for a lengthy passage about the urban myth of Disney’s frozen corpse. An odd inclusion to say the least, though notable for being perhaps the first time the corporation has acknowledged the myth.
But the sheer amount of sketches, rough animations, pictures and rare footage make the film a pleasure to watch and the film is wise enough to be generous in the screen time devoted to them.
The film also fascinates as a portrait of Disney himself (Much of the narration is actually provided by the him). Disney at the time of filming is caught at almost the exact midpoint between the warm every uncle that he eventually settled on as his persona in his latter years and the handsome, dapper artist so indelibly captured by Neil Garbler.
The film makes a case for Disney’s effectiveness in winning American sympathies south of the border without overstating things. As well as, perhaps unintentionally, capturing the beginnings of Pop Culture as a colonizing force.
The film is also refreshingly open about the frustration of how little the film that came out the trip reflected the creativity that the trip so evidently inspired. No one is going to claim that Saludos Amigos is a Disney Film of the first water and all involved seem to realize it, and have no trouble voicing their disappointment.
All in all, Walt And El Grupo is strictly for Disney fans, something I wouldn’t say for Waking Sleeping Beauty. But for those fans it is a rewarding look at an under represented slice of the studio’s history and art.
While the archival material on The Boys is less impressive, partly because the film has less to do with animation and partly because it comes from one of the least interesting creative periods in Disney history. Is there really a Disney fan so compulsively completest that they crave behind the scenes information on The Gnome Mobile and The Monkey’s Uncle? On second thought I don’t think I want to know the answer to that question.
That being said, in the truth in criticism department the archival footage does feature footage of a balding Nehru beclad John Williams, looking totally stoned as he writes the music for the ill fated Tom Sawyer Musical. Which is to say the least quite impressive.
The film follows the careers of The Sherman Brothers, who became one of the most recognizable songwriting teams in history, while all the while apparently wanting to kill one another with their bare hands. It’s a shockingly unsentimental film, not many Disney Documentaries are going to contain footage from Dachau.
The film is smart enough to let the (still living) brothers and their music tell their own story. Although it does pad things out with interviews that range from “but of course” (Alan Menken, Randy Newman, John Lasseter) to so random that you can’t help but wonder if they were selected by spinning a wheel or throwing darts at their rolodex. Including I shit you not, the lead Guitarist from Wings, Ben Stiller and John Landis. Landis in particular, is so avuncularly entertaining that it actually takes you a moment to wonder what the fuck he is doing there. As he is neither or musician or has ever had anything to do with Disney. In all fairness it is revealed, very late in the film that he gave the Sherman’s cameos in Beverly Hills Cop 3 (Which Landis has the unmitigated gall to straight facedly call a “comedy” rather then “A hate crime against laughter.”) This leads to a bunch of talking heads speaking warmly about Beverly Hills Cop 3. Marking both the first time in history anyone has ever done so and thusly garnering one of the biggest laughs in the film.
Disney appears as a supporting character in the film as their patron and father figure, though it does take the time to dig into his passion for bringing Mary Poppins to the screen, by all accounts the last time he really deeply cared about the making of a movie. But the movie is surprisingly generous, for something bearing The Disney Logo, in highlighting the work the Shermans did for films outside of the company’s walls.
While The Boys is a worthy tribute to both the music of the Sherman Brothers, and the movies that they wrote them for (aside from you know, the terrible ones) it is less moving as a documentary about artistry as it is about the bewildered hurt that creeps into any sibling relationship. It is a deeply sympathetic, yet unmistakably bitter portrait of two people who cannot stand each other, no matter how much they might want to.