Two significant Disney-related documentaries, Walt & El Grupo, the story of Walt Disney’s sojourn to South America in 1941, and The Boys, the life story of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, are being released on DVD tomorrow, along with the story of the animation department’s fall and rise and fall, Waking Sleeping Beauty. Even if you were lucky enough to see these films in their extremely limited theatrical release, the DVDs have bonus material that makes them a must for any Disney buff.
For years, Disney management has generously made the production of such documentaries possible, including Ted Thomas’ Frank and Ollie, the story of his father Frank Thomas and his lifelong friend and colleague Ollie Johnston, two of the giants of Disney animation, and Leslie Iwerks’ The Hand Behind the Mouse, the saga of her legendary grandfather Ub Iwerks. The problem has been getting these worthy films seen by the people who would enjoy them the most. At one time, Frank and Ollie could only be purchased at Disney retail stores, and its existence there seemed to be a state secret. The Iwerks film finally found a home on—
—the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit two-disc set that was part of my Walt Disney Treasures series.
But now, the three most recent Disney docs are getting a proper commercial release, which means anyone who cares about them will have easy access. What a concept!
Ted Thomas’ Walt & El Grupo is in some ways the most academic of the films, but I found it fascinating. I reviewed it when it was released to theaters last fall, and since that time, J.B. Kaufman’s even more exhaustive book on the subject, South of the Border with Walt Disney, has been published. Thomas and Kaufman provide a full-length commentary track on the DVD, and there are a handful of all-too-brief but valuable segments that the director was obliged to cut from his film to bring it to a manageable length. In a separate segment he explains how he approached making vivid use of vintage photographs in his documentary, in a way that would bring them alive. The DVD also includes an instant collectible: a two-sided brochure that lays out a timeline of Disney’s activities during World War Two.
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story is a delightful and surprisingly revealing documentary about Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, the songwriting siblings who found an ideal home at the Walt Disney studios—where they were always referred to as “the boys.” They spent ten happy years there creating songs for movies, TV shows, and theme parks, including the Oscar-winning score for Mary Poppins and “It’s a Small World,” to name just a few of their many accomplishments. Their sons, Greg and Jeff, made this film not only as a tribute to their fathers but as a means of exploring their unusual relationship, which wasn’t as sunny as their public image made us believe.
I reviewed this film last year when all-too-few people got to see it in theaters. I’m glad the DVD will bring it to a much wider audience, but I’m even happier that the filmmaking cousins have been able to incorporate about an hour of first-rate material that didn’t make it to their final cut of the feature. These segments are too good to be thought of as leftovers: for any Sherman (or Disney) fan they’re precious moments. Two personal favorites: a collection of hilarious and ingenious cartoon sketches drawn by Richard and Bob’s office neighbor Roy Williams (known to many of us as the Big Mooseketeer from The Mickey Mouse Club). Williams was one of Disney’s most imaginative gag-men and these drawings, inspired by what Roy heard through the wall of his adjoining office, are a wonderful souvenir of that time—especially as Richard and Bob explain the events that inspired them. A feature called the Sherman Brothers Juke Box highlights the stories behind some of their songs, and even includes a 1920s Eddie Cantor performance of their father Al’s “Oh, Gee, Georgie!” in a Lee DeForest Phonofilm. This DVD also includes a collectible insert: a reproduction of the original manuscript copy of the Mary Poppins song “Feed the Birds,” when it was still titled “Tuppence a Bag.” The pencil markings indicate that it was written on September 10, 1961 and revised on January 14, 1963.
Because it was created in-house by veteran Disney producer Don Hahn and longtime studio executive Peter Schneider, Waking Sleeping Beauty has had better distribution than any of these documentaries; it’s even showing on cable TV. It’s a modern-day Hollywood saga that plays like a page-turning novel onscreen, as it chronicles the near-demise of Disney animation, followed by its unbelievable renaissance in the 1980s and 90s. Hahn and Schneider decided to forego the usual “talking-head” interviews and rely instead on home movies, press events, and video taken at the time the incidents took place. This gives the movie an immediacy that is enhanced by Hahn’s personal, first-person narration. There is an abundance of bonus material, most of it comprised of material intended to appear in the body of the feature, all of it interesting. The collectible in this box is a card-stock reproduction of an amusing caricature by Beauty and the Beast director Kirk Wise; the film is enlivened by many such drawings, which animators have always drawn in order to blow off steam or get a laugh from their colleagues.
There’s one more documentary on the DVD docket this week which is somewhat hidden amidst the BluRay content of the new Fantasia release. It deals with Salvador Dali’s Destino, and I’ll discuss it in a later post.