Three Documentaries from Disney
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story (November 28/10)
As indicated by its title, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story documents the lives and careers of legendary songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman - with their award-winning work on Disney classics like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book eclipsed by a bitter rivalry that has kept them apart for decades. It's hard to deny that The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story generally comes off as a rather standard documentary, as directors Jeff and Gregory Sherman start with their subjects' early lives and then move through their ups and downs within the entertainment industry. There's subsequently little doubt that the movie fares best when focused on the brothers' exploits in Hollywood, with the behind-the-scenes look at their indelible work certainly as fascinating as one might've expected (and hoped). It does, however, become increasingly clear that the filmmakers are perhaps a little too close to their subjects - they are, after all, the Sherman brothers' sons - as the two men are either unwilling or unable to satisfactorily explore their fathers' almost inexplicable bitterness towards one another (ie what caused, and perpetuated, this rift?) The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, as a result, possesses a decidedly superficial feel that's compounded by an overlong running time, which effectively cements the movie's place as an affable, sporadically intriguing (yet somewhat underwhelming) piece of work.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (November 30/10)
An intriguing yet uneven documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty details the turmoil that unfolded within Disney's animation department in the 1980s and 1990s - with a specific emphasis on the company's remarkable turnabout from an irrelevant purveyor of forgettable kiddie fare to the movie industry's most successful and prolific animation studio. Filmmaker Don Hahn's everything-but-kitchen-sink approach to the material ensures that Waking Sleeping Beauty is often as exhausting as it is informative, and it ultimately does seem as though the film has primarily been geared towards animation buffs. There is, however, little doubt that the movie boasts a number of eye-opening and downright fascinating stretches, with the behind-the-scenes peek into the making of such contemporary Disney classics as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast standing as an obvious highlight - as Hahn elicits impressively honest remarks from his (mostly offscreen) subjects. It consequently goes without saying that the film is at its best when focused on the animators and their backstage exploits, as the periodic emphasis on the cutthroat maneuverings of Disney's various executives - ie Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, etc - ultimately pales in comparison and ensures that the movie possesses a distressingly uneven sensibility. The final result is a rather average documentary that probably could've benefited from another few passes through the editing bay, although it's worth noting that the movie is quite informative and downright eye-opening on an impressively consistent basis.
Walt & El Grupo (September 29/11)
There have been few documentaries throughout film history that have been as narrow in their appeal as Walt & El Grupo, as the film, which details Walt Disney's trip to South America in the early '40s, has been geared towards hardcore animation buffs to a degree that's nothing short of astonishing. Filmmaker Theodore Thomas has infused the proceedings with a dry sensibility that proves effective at alienating the viewer right from the get-go, with the director's ongoing efforts at padding out the 107 minute (!) running time resulting in a whole host of needless digressions and sequences (eg a random woman discusses the importance of dance in her life). Thomas' decision to augment the admittedly intriguing stock footage with long, interminable instances of people reading old letters contributes heavily to the movie's stale vibe, and it does become increasingly clear that Walt & El Grupo would've been pushing it as a 20-minute short - which does ensure that even fans of the subject matter will be hard-pressed to justify the movie's extreme length. The inclusion of a few animated sequences stands as a rare highlight within the otherwise worthless proceedings, with the viewer's extreme boredom cementing Walt & El Grupo's place as a niche effort that has little to offer all but the most ardent of animation junkies.