Movie News & Reviews

‘Walt Before Mickey’ is a small film about Disney’s Missouri and Kansas City years

Thomas Ian Nicholas (center) is a young Walt Disney beginning his career at KC’s Laugh-O-Gram in “Walt Before Mickey.”
Thomas Ian Nicholas (center) is a young Walt Disney beginning his career at KC’s Laugh-O-Gram in “Walt Before Mickey.” Voltage Pictures

“Walt Before Mickey,” now playing at the B&B Shawnee 18, is an independent film about the early years of Walt Disney in Marceline, Mo., in Kansas City (where he formed his first animation studio) and in Los Angeles.

This singularly American story was directed by Khoa Le, 35, who was born in Thailand of refugee Vietnamese parents, raised in the U.S. by a foster family (Mom was Italian, Dad was Irish), and educated at Juilliard.

Le replaced the film’s original director at the last minute.

“A friend called and said, ‘Khoa, there’s an opportunity for you to direct a movie about Walt Disney.’

“I said, ‘A Disney film?’

“‘No, an indie about Walt Disney.’”

The catch was that for his first feature (he’d done numerous shorts and music videos) Le would have just 11 days to take over a micro-budgeted effort for which many decisions had already been made. He’d have to familiarize himself with Disney’s personal life — “I didn’t know much about Walt Disney except his animation” — and rev up a production whose crew was demoralized.

Le devoured the 400-page book by Tim Susanin on which the movie is based and two versions of the script. At that point the critical role of Walt as a young man had not been cast. Producer Armando Gutierrez suggested the new director look at Thomas Ian Nicholas (the “American Pie” series), who with a thin mustache bore a striking resemblance to Disney.

“We didn’t have much time to talk it over,” Le said, “so I asked if Tom could relate to what Walt Disney had gone through in building his business, the struggles and failures. And Tom said he’d grown up poor living in a trailer with his mom, that he’d founded businesses that failed. And that was the key to the movie — Walt Disney was not an immediate success. He faced lots of adversity.”

“Walt Before Mickey” was shot in the Orlando area in just 17 days.

“I came from a short film background, indie stuff, so I knew how to work efficiently,” Le said. “I’m an editor, too, so I was shooting to edit. For most scenes the actors got only two takes. I had to go back to my grassroots of guerrilla filmmaking.

“For one major scene in which Walt and his brother Roy” — played by Jon Heder, famous as Napoleon Dynamite — “argue over what to name their company, we did it in one uninterrupted take. I realized the dialogue was so good the scene didn’t need editing.”

Le worked so feverishly on the shoot that he developed bronchitis and pinkeye. Crew members had to beg him to take time for lunch.

“I always felt like Walt Disney was hovering over us,” he said. “It was like, ‘Hey, man, I know this is a low-budget deal, but my story needs to be told.’”

The ultimate Disney story, Le said, is that of “a man determined to create a product, an environment, that could change the world. His goal was to make people happy. The characters he developed became symbols of America — and they did change the world.”

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