Nov. 3-9, 2000
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IN THIS ISSUE

Documentary revises Disney myth

By Dan Heuchert

They were two dream-driven Kansas City kids in 1919, sharing a passion: the new field of motion-picture animation.

While documentary filmmaker Leslie Iwerks agrees that Walt Disney provided Mickey Mouse's soul, her grandfather contributed his form.

Eventually one followed his dream to Hollywood, later sending for the other, and together they established arguably the greatest entertainment company on Earth.

You may have already guessed the identity of one of the friends: None other than Walt Disney. The other?

Ub Iwerks.

Who?

Disney's oddly-named partner (he was of Dutch-German descent) is the subject of "The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story," an enlightening 1999 documentary written, produced and directed by his granddaughter, Leslie Iwerks, and screened Oct. 27 at the Virginia Film Festival.

Leslie Iwerks -- only 1 when her grandfather died -- grew up with family legends about her grandfather's leading role in the Disney empire, yet found little public mention of it. The film, she said, was an attempt to set the record straight.

We learn, for example, that it was Iwerks who first drew Mickey Mouse, although Disney conceived the words and story lines. Iwerks had joined the staff of Disney Brothers (with Walt and his brother, Roy) in July 1924, and they soon produced a series of cartoons featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But Oswald's rights were controlled by their distributor, who soon claimed them -- and a good portion of the Disney staff -- and took them to New York.

The Disneys turned to Iwerks, their top animator, to create a new character. Mickey Mouse was born, and Ub feverishly cranked out as many as 700 drawings a day to create the first Mickey feature, "Plane Crazy." (This time, Disney retained the rights, vowing to own everything he produced from then on.)

Iwerks was more than just an artist; he was a technical whiz. He produced the first synchronized-sound cartoon, "Steamboat Willie," which represented a quantum leap forward in animation technology. Soon, Mickey Mouse cartoons were taking top billing on the nation's marquees.

As Walt Disney asserted more and more control over the company, though, Iwerks began to feel squeezed. He left Disney Brothers in 1929 to form his own company, the Ub Iwerks Studio, creating now-forgotten characters like "Flip the Frog" and "Willie Whopper." The studio won technical acclaim and mentored some of Hollywood's top animators, including Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones. But Iwerks' dark, edgy, satirical humor fizzled in the Depression, while Mickey Mouse's popularity boomed.

In 1938, Iwerks closed shop and returned to Disney, leaving animation to head the studio's Photographic Effects Lab. Iwerks was the first to add depth to what were once two-dimensional drawings. Though he and Walt had pioneered mixing live action and cartoons back in Kansas City, Iwerks brought it to a new level in "Mary Poppins," in which Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews cavorted through an animated fantasyland.

He stayed in contact with his dark side, too, collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock in creating the special effects for "The Birds." [Roger Ebert led a shot-by-shot critique of this film during the festival.]

He even had a hand in creating virtually every attraction at Disneyland, with some persisting to this day, though Iwerks died in 1971.

Leslie Iwerks began "The Hand Behind the Mouse" in 1990 as an independent project, but ran into snags with Disney's lawyers, who still maintain vigilant control over Disney's trademarks. Roy Disney Jr. interceded with Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and the film became a Disney production.

That didn't clear away all the obstacles, though. For awhile, Disney insisted that Leslie sign over the rights to her own family photos. "It was an interesting lesson," she said. "It was such a fight to get this film made in several respects."

The product seems to be a hit. Disney asked her to expand the original 60-minute version to 90 minutes for theatrical release. The film is currently making the rounds at festivals, Iwerks said, but she hopes it will soon see wider release in the home video and cable markets.


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