DVD Reviews: Disney Documentaries -- The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story (2009); Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009); Walt & El Grupo: The Untold Adventures (2008)

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From the highly collectible tin-cased Treasures releases to the extensive research on display evidenced in behind-the-scenes and/or historical extras paired with feature films both new and old, since the invention of the DVD format, the House of Mouse has routinely broken down the walls to the magical kingdom.

Moving beyond the engaging entertainment of the main title on disc, continuously the company's DVD producers have sought to educate us as well by unlocking studio doors to offer Disney enthusiasts and film buffs the opportunity to discover just how much work goes into the production of one of their masterful motion pictures that many of us took for granted as children.

And with the advent of Combo Packs came the opportunity to include even more information as we've seen the House that Walt built carry on this tradition of excellence, debuting truly astounding historical extras that touch the inner scholar in all of us by opening up the vaults and archives to share vital documents of our American culture that should be preserved as part of our country's history.

In fact, I've often thought that Disney should take a page out of Ken Burns' play-book and unveiling an epic documentary miniseries centering on not just the studio, companies and parks but particularly on the wide array of talented human beings who've worked in a variety of departments so that viewers could learn even more about the human side of “brand” we experience on some level nearly every day.

While more than likely that would be an impossible task better suited to an entire line of Mickey Mouse sponsored encyclopedia, fortunately Disney whet our appetites for savory knowledge and fascinating human drama with the release of a trio of acclaimed, award-winning Disney documentaries fresh off of the international film festival circuit.

And although it was a happy accident that I watched them in alphabetical order, it was an even stranger coincidence in retrospect that I happened to view the three in what I now know is my order of preference regarding their overall quality.

Alternately heartbreaking and touching, the standout in the nonfiction titles is the bittersweet biographical portrait of Walt Disney's “Boys” aka his two most prolific and successful songwriters, the brothers Robert (Bob) and Richard (Dick) Sherman.

Lovingly crafted by a son of each man and executive produced by Ben Stiller, cousins turned filmmakers Jeffrey C. Sherman and Gregory V. Sherman initially hoped that their work The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story would serve as the bridge to unite their estranged fathers.

For, despite working alongside each other for decades, Bob and Dick Sherman led completely separate, unrelated lives, which becomes painfully clear at the start of this documentary when Jeffrey and Gregory acknowledge that they hadn't seen each other in forty years even though they'd been raised just seven blocks apart before finally crossing paths at an event honoring their fathers... who were seated at opposite sides of the theatre.

As you can imagine given the conflicts endured and mixed feelings, there are some conflicting memories shared by the brothers about whether or not they were close in their childhood being raised well by their devoted silent film star mother and successful optimistic songwriting father before ultimately harrowing experiences in World War II seemed to leave Bob forever changed.

Yet even though the two would amazingly attend the same college at the same time but spend little time together, which would foreshadow their relationship to come of sharing a Disney office and little else, the one thing that can't be argued is just how in sync the men were when they began collaborating musically as two halves to the same whole.

Living together purely for financial benefit, after being challenged to combine skills to turn a profit by their father -- aspiring novelist and literature major Bob and melodic music major Dick were advised to pen something “simple, singable and sincere,” which ultimately became their modus operandi for decades to come.

From garnering a top-of-the-pops hit with “You're Sixteen,” to winning an Oscar for the score that changed their lives and cemented their relationship with Walt Disney in Mary Poppins, it seemed as though the endlessly adaptable Sherman Brothers never found a topic they couldn't spin into an irresistible ditty.

Whether it was finding inspiration in Louis Prima's band for The Jungle Book, forging a happy sibling relationship with “Let's Get Together,” for Haley Mills in Parent Trap or creating ideal theme songs for “It's a Small World” and Winnie the Pooh, the harmony of their pitch-perfect collaboration makes accepting their personal discord even harder.

And ironically, this is particularly evident when you consider the framing as we've been trained by the Sherman Brothers music and the movies of Disney to anticipate a happy ending. Yet regardless of how many spoonfuls of sugar they served up over the years, the taste of bitterness that pervades is impossible to ignore, despite the fact that we value the wisdom of the filmmakers who understand that human relationships are too complex to try and dissect in less than two hours.

A sophisticated, highly personal yet still question-filled psychological study that doesn't force its subjects to change nor box them into corners, in the end The Boys reminds us Bob and Dick Sherman knew how to transcend language in their dynamic after all, appreciating one another on a level that no one else could through the magic of music.

Chronicling the era of the Walt Disney animation renaissance ushered in over the course of ten years from the all-time low of The Black Cauldron through enormous game-changing hits like Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and more, Waking Sleeping Beauty makes an exceptionally good companion piece to The Pixar Story, which was first available on Disney Pixar’s Blu-ray Combo Pack release of Wall-E.

Comprised of interviews and first person handheld footage, largely shot by former Cal Arts grad turned Disney animator turned Pixar genius John Lasseter, Waking Sleeping Beauty reveals the downward spiral of animation.

Although it had began to plummet in the ‘60s as Walt Disney’s focus widened to live action films, theme parks, television, future cities and marketing, in the wake of big blockbuster event movies, interest in hand-drawn movies sunk to an all-time low in the ‘70s after not just the death of Walt Disney but also a series of dismal failures found the artists eventually kicked off the lot in the early ‘80s.

The divided house of some artists who’d gone off with former department head Don Bluth, others who began working towards a Pixar goal, and those who battled it out working ‘round the clock at Disney were thrust into a high pressure cooker of ego, inexperience, and lust for the almighty dollar, first with the revolving door dance of Roy E. Disney back in and out of a major studio role.

But things grew even more unstable when Walt’s nephew Roy brought several ambitious cooks into the kitchen that likewise ushered in their own collaborators in the form of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Peter Schneider without questioning whether or not they would share recipes, work well with creative crew members or knew which ingredients could make or break Disney.

Dynamic, driven and highly intelligent, the new Disney men had very different attitudes about not only what the future of the studio should be but also how important its animation legacy was as well, which is evidenced throughout Waking Sleeping Beauty as Katzenberg curtly informs the artists that instead of the Academy Awards, the only awards he cared about were “The Bank of America Awards,” translating into how much money their movies would make.

And although their pocketbook fueled passion helped propel what the Los Angeles Times aptly described as “one of the best comeback stories in show business history,” it was apparent from the very first time that Katzenberg and Eisner sat in a storyboard pitch meeting for The Great Mouse Detective that to the new bosses, animation was as difficult to grasp as a newly discovered foreign language.

And admittedly, some of the candid footage, including a particularly sour battle of egos as Disney guilts Eisner into giving him a better introduction at a tragically deceased colleague’s memorial service, is incredibly eye-opening in the way that it demystifies the magic of Mickey Mouse in favor of humorless, cash driven hubris.

Yet at the same time, because the events occurred merely a generation ago and the players involved have all been well-documented in both the mainstream media as well as throughout Disney’s own archived behind-the-scenes DVD featurettes, overall there’s precious little for us to awaken and discover in the otherwise capably executed Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Nonetheless, if you’re a member of Generation Y or haven’t paid too much attention to what’s been going on in the magic kingdom since Walt’s era, you’re sure to find it much more fascinating. This being said, however, I must warn that because this is the shortest title of the nonfiction trio – clocking in at less than 90 minutes – some basic “who’s who” knowledge of Disney suits is required to better understand the sheer amount of players incorporated into director Don Hahn’s Beauty.

Although it’s fun for a few minutes to witness the exotic locales and culture clashes, honestly, the idea of looking at nearly two hours worth of travel photos and home videos taken by someone else on a vacation you weren’t on is an awful lot to ask of anybody.

And while on the surface, one would think that watching a feature length documentary travelogue about Walt Disney would be the exception to the rule, unfortunately Walt & El Grupo proves otherwise, as a litmus test on how much you can take without falling asleep.

Due to the historical significance of the topic, this didn’t have to be the case at all as writer/director Theodore Thomas’ well-intentioned documentary had tons of footage, diary accounts, letters, firsthand interviews, and more at his disposal.

Following the success of Snow White, Disney’s professional life was at an all-time high but after a labor strike began unexpectedly based on what we’re led to believe was some sort of confusing miscommunication, Walt Disney found himself personally at one of the two lowest points in his entire life.

It was around this time that Disney was propositioned by President Roosevelt and the United States government to serve first as a goodwill cultural ambassador to South America to shake hands and win the hearts and minds of what we hoped would be our future allies against Germany when we joined the second world war after the attack on Pearl Harbor later that year.

Less comfortable with a diplomatic agenda than a creative one, Walt Disney soon adapted the mission plan and agreed to tour Argentina, Brazil and Chile in 1941 along with his wife and a “mini-studio” of eighteen employees in search of new artistic inspiration for the films that would become Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

Crisscrossing back and forth in time, the narrative starts to meander considerably as we encounter various recollections of the trip from those who journeyed abroad and those they met overseas, whether it’s through interviews or through their personal papers, photographs and more. And although the tale of the tour experienced by Disney and his group (hence the Spanish “El Grupo”) begins enthusiastically with gorgeous sights and sounds to behold, the film itself soon loses its focus.

While it works well as a nostalgic rainy Saturday afternoon historical extra to be played after one of Disney’s South American movies, unfortunately there’s nothing memorable about Grupo aside from our disbelief over how effective it could’ve been.

Despite the fact that Disney aficionados will be charmed, when viewed in contrast with the other two documentaries, Grupo doesn’t begin to compare with the heartbreak of Boys or the bittersweet chronicle of Waking.

Namely, Walt happily settles for existence as sentimental, episodic travelogue tapestry as opposed to striving to become a cohesive documentary about a distinct series of events and their impact on the life of one of the world’s most famous visionaries of the twentieth century.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.