Saturday, April 26, 2014

'As Dreamers Do': Portrait of the Artist as a Plaster Saint

Olan Rogers as Walt Disney in a publicity shot from
As Dreamers Do.
In an interview I did some years back with Walt Disney biographer Neal Gabler, he recounted a conversation he had with Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller while he was researching his book. He explained to Diane his intent to tell an honest story about her father that would certainly include facts she might not approve of. Her response, as Gabler remembered, was, “You know what I really hate? I hate books that make my father out to be a plaster saint."

I've talked to other people who knew Diane and who recalled her making similar statements. As much as she disliked the many articles and books over the years that took cheap shots at her father, likewise she had no time for those that blindly idolized Walt Disney and insisted on hoisting him onto an untouchable pedestal. This was a prime motivator in her creating the Walt Disney Family Museum, to take an unflinching look at her father and his legacy, to praise his many accomplishments, but to also treat him as a human being. Walt was a creative genius, to be sure, but he could also be stubborn, moody and impatient--not a person on whose bad side you wanted to be. In other words, human. It's these very foibles and complexities that still make him such a fascinating individual nearly 50 years after his death.

In the new, independent Walt biopic As Dreamers Do, director Logan Sekulow chronicles the great showman's early life, from his years as a youngster in Marceline to the beginning of his career as an artist and filmmaker in Kansas City. Sekulow shows no interest, however, in exploring the deeper human aspects of Walt Disney's personality. Instead, he opts to portray Walt (Olan Rogers) as a talented and tireless optimist who can do no wrong--ever--in the eyes of his friends and family. Walt is destined for greatness, and everyone knows it because everyone says so. Repeatedly. Not ten minute goes by at any point in the film without some character gushing about how talented/clever/resourceful/blessed little Walter is. It's hagiography at its worst. Like the title character in Mary Poppins, the film that would define his final years, young Walt is practically perfect in every way. And if he does make a mistake or a poor decision, he's rarely admonished for it. If he is, he's always quickly forgiven because, gosh darn it, he's a dreamer and dreamers never quit.

The dialog is cringe-worthy. Characters don't have conversations so much as they trade speeches with one another. "If anybody can think of something, it's you," Ub Iwerks (William Haynes) enthuses to Walt. "You're a thinker. I've got your number. You've got one of the greatest minds in all the world!" That's a typical line in a script by Wendy Ott that I suspect has a lot of exclamation points in it.

As Dreamers Do suffers from a "tell, don't show" approach to storytelling that continually sucks the life out of the narrative. We see Walt's father Elias (Mark Stuart) talk about the demanding paper route Walt and his brother Roy will take on in Kansas City, but we never see them toss one paper. We hear about Walt's very first job at the Pesman-Rubin Commercial Art Studio (notable for being the place Walt met Ub Iwerks), but we never see him work there. Then there's the intrusive and unnecessary narration by country singer Travis Tritt that regularly brings the film to a crashing halt to tell you what everyone is thinking, feeling and doing--because the movie is too timid and lazy to actually show you.

It's clear that Sekulow idolizes Walt Disney and wants very much for you to like him. But Sekulow's inexperience as a feature filmmaker and his excessive earnestness about the subject matter only do a disservice to a complex and fascinating dreamer. Walt is no plaster saint and deserves better.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I purchased a pre-sale package of As Dreamers Do to support the film and to receive an advance copy of it (it will premiere in Nashville on May 13th). As part of the package, my name appears in the closing credits of the film--which is really cool--but it still doesn't make it a better film.

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