Tom Hanks. Thomas Ian Nichols. One of them is, well, Tom Hanks, and the other is the mopey guy from American Pie who wasn’t Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Stiffler, or the guy who had sex with Stiffler’s mom. If your memory goes back far enough you might even remember Nichols as the young kid who’s freakishly strong arm helped him become a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs in Rookie of the Year. Either way, you’d think there’d be no real conceivable reason to mention Hanks and Nichols in the same sentence, but now those two will forever be linked in history. Why? Because Hanks was the first person to play Walt Disney on film in Saving Mr. Banks, and now Nichols is the second in the new indie biopic Walt Before Mickey, which is currently seeking distribution.
Actually, the sequencing of that may be a bit off. Back in January, I passed along the news that there were two Disney biopics in active development. In addition to Walt Before Mickey, there was also the Nashville-based indie As Dreamers Do starring the young YouTube sensation Olan Rogers as Walt. The difference between the two is Walt Before Mickey primarily concerns itself with the 1919-1928 period of Walt’s life in which he moved from Missouri to California and launched four different animation studios, ultimately getting crushed by the rather ruthless competition, and As Dreamers Do focuses strictly on Walt’s childhood. Both projects filmed at the same time meaning it’s not totally clear who was technically the second person to portray Disney.
Eh. It doesn’t really matter. We’ll just go by which of the movies comes out first (UPDATE: It turns out As Dreamers Do did; see the comments section), and Walt Before Mickey just got a lot closer to that, debuting its trailer on Deadline yesterday. There are going to be a couple of people you might recognize in the trailer, including Jon Heder (Napolean Dynamite) as Roy Disney. Full House’s Jodie Sweetin and Wizards of Waverly Place’s David Henrie also pop up. It is the directorial debut of Khoa Le, working with a script from Arthur L. Bernstein and Armando Gutierrez which they adapted from a non-fiction book of the same name by Timothy S. Susanin.
So, yeah, that looks…not terrible. Frankly, to me, that looks like something which should be a TV movie, somewhere in-between Lifetime and The History Channel. I mean that in terms of its production values, acting, heavy-handed orchestral score, etc. It seems like the type of movie that will fail to make a lot of money or register as any kind of awards contender, but instead fall into that weird category of inspirational films faith-based audiences embrace, writing about the lessons the movie can teach us about life (basically, never give up and always persevere). There’s nothing wrong with that kind of thing, especially since that trailer really hits home the “inspirational, true story” angle. It’s just fairly far removed from the more commercial and would-be awards contender Saving Mr. Banks.
Here’s the thing: Walt’s life before Mickey Mouse is fascinating in a kind of “Did you know he was an utter failure?” or “Daaaaaamn, old Hollywood was a seriously messed up place” way. A simple trip to Wikipedia will reveal all the secrets of Walt’s lost decade. His tumultuous past was kind of referenced in Saving Mr. Banks in a lovely scene between Hanks and Jason Schwartzman as Richard Sherman, one half of the legendary Sherman Brothers song-writing team. As Sherman noodles on the piano in the writer’s room late at night, Disney joins him, and expresses both his frustration with working with the wickedly bitchy P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) as well as his empathy for her need to protect her creation, in this case Marry Poppins. Disney makes a vague reference to having gone through a similar situation, which Disney fanatics likely instantly knew to mean that he was talking about the time in the late 20s when his company and the character he created, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was basically stolen right out from under him.
Walt Before Mickey looks to fill us in on that, but doing so in a pretty by-the-numbers manner. According to Deadline, it is close to getting a distribution deal and a Fall release.
What do you think? Am I being way too hard on Walt Before Mickey? Or did you also look at it and think, “This week on The History Channel”? Let me know in the comments.