When The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, comedian Patton Oswalt compared it to making a movie about Albert Einstein but focusing it only on two days he spent in the bathroom with really bad food poisoning. In a way, Walt Before Mickey is like Oswalt's jokingly proposed Einstein movie. It shows a great man at the lowest points of his life, so miserable and broke that he is actually shown fishing a half-eaten sandwich out of the trash to eat it.
Walt Before Mickey dramatizes a portion of Walt Disney's life, starting from just after World War I up to the premiere of Mickey Mouse's first cartoon, Plane Crazy, and tells of the hardships he struggled through before striking gold with the now world-famous character. The film's biggest problem is that the dramatization doesn't play as strong as it could be; it feels like it could have been executed better as an episode in a miniseries or simply as a narrated documentary. Presented as a movie, it's missing a vital component for the medium in that there's no arc for any of the characters. Walt is just as driven at the beginning of the film as he is at the end, just with more hardships under his belt.
The only thing he's really shown to have learned from all the trials he's been put through is that he needs his name on the animation he creates so that he'll have ownership of it. But we already saw a form of that at the beginning of the film when he and Ub Iwerks team up to create a studio of their own and they agree to just call it "Disney Studios" because adding "Iwerks" makes it sound like an optometrist.
While Thomas Ian Nicholas does an admirable job playing "The Diz," the rest of the cast performs as if they are acting in a community-theater production. Some of that could be chalked up to the "this happened, then this happened" script which requires the characters to move scenes along in the quickest way possible (yet it still leaves room for long scenes of staring or brooding that serve to make the movie feel slow overall).
The film early on shows Walt to be an aspiring artist, but once he finds someone more talented than himself, Iwerks, he stops drawing altogether to let Iwerks take over while Walt handles the big picture stuff. It's a glimpse of what eventually made the man the success he became: realizing the potential in others and guiding that toward a common goal, but it never gets the amount of traction it needs in the film to really get across in any meaningful way. Instead, we also see him hiring people off the street just because they will work cheaply (he even admits the woman he hires to be his secretary, his future wife, is a terrible secretary) so the film works against itself there.
Lack of money is a major plot point throughout the film as it is repeatedly the one thing that prevents Walt from achieving his dreams. However, at the film's climax, when Walt finally does create Mickey Mouse and the issue of having no funds to see his new creation come to fruition, the film completely glosses over how he comes to get the financing he needs to put his soon-to-be famous mouse on the big screen.
Perhaps the most offensive slap to the face to the Walt Before Mickey viewer is Frank Licari's portrayal of Snidely Whiplash--I mean George Winkler. Speaking in as thick an accent as Boris Badenov and frequently clad only in black, Winkler's mustache-twirling character is as subtly played as the villain in a children's puppet show. It seems as if Licari was directed to act as though he was in a cartoon instead of in a movie about making cartoons. There are no bones made about who the viewer is supposed to hate in this story, proving that in the narrative of Walt Before Mickey, the cartoons are not the only things shown in black and white.
On top of it all, Walt Before Mickey lacks the one thing that always made Disney's projects stand out from those of his contemporaries': heart. There's very little in the film that makes us want to root for Walt, other than pitting him up against adversaries that laugh like parodies of Bond super-villains and knowing that eventually things will all work out for him.
Walt Before Mickey doesn't make the audience care about Walt any more than a movie about Albert Einstein being sick in the bathroom would make us care about Einstein. It's a play-by-play retelling of a real-life story with no real message to impart. This is what makes Walt Before Mickey a hard film to recommend, even to the die-hard Disney enthusiast. It's not particularly entertaining, it just tells you a story about a storyteller without any of the charm or heart we've all come to expect from said storyteller.
Walt Before Mickey is currently available on VOD and DVD.