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‘Mouse’ Looks at Iwerks’ Hand in Creating Disney Animation

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story,” a documentary by the artist’s granddaughter, Leslie Iwerks, which opens today at the El Capitan Theater for a one-week run, offers viewers a rare look at one of the unsung giants of animation and film technology.

Born in 1901, Iwerks was still a teenager in Kansas City when he met another ambitious young artist, Walt Disney. The two friends taught themselves animation at night, while working as commercial artists. In addition to doing much of the animation for Disney’s early live-action/animation “Alice in Cartoonland” series, Iwerks designed Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney’s first cartoon star. When Walt lost Oswald to distributor Charles Mintz in 1928, Iwerks designed Mickey Mouse and animated the first three Mickey shorts virtually single-handedly.

In 1930, Iwerks left Disney to start his own studio, but his “Flip the Frog,” “Willie Whopper” and “Comicolor” series failed to generate much interest. In 1940, Iwerks returned to the Disney Studio, where his extraordinary technical abilities made him a key figure in the special-effects department. He won Oscars for his contributions to optical printing and traveling-matte technology, and he revolutionized the animation process when he modified a Xerox machine to print the animators’ drawings directly onto cels. “101 Dalmatians” (1961) showcased the new process. Iwerks died in 1971, five years after Disney.

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Leslie Iwerks has assembled an impressive array of old photographs and film clips. It’s a treat to see young Walt and Ub clowning for the camera on the sets of the “Alice” comedies in the ‘20s. She juxtaposes these scenes with recent footage: The Kansas City Slide Co. looks the same as it did when Disney and Iwerks met there almost 80 years ago. But the viewer feels closest to Iwerks when looking at his loose, lively animation drawings of Mickey, Oswald and the bony stars of “The Skeleton Dance” (1928). These visuals are supplemented with talking heads of elderly artists (Marc Davis, Chuck Jones, Ollie Johnston), young animators (Mark Kausler, John Lasseter) and film historians (Leonard Maltin, Joe Adamson, Russell Merritt). There’s a bit too much stock footage of New York and Hollywood, and shots of hands manipulating equipment. Even at 92 minutes, the film feels a little long.

“Hand” loses its grip a bit when the filmmaker suggests the Hays Code and the national mood were responsible for the failure of Iwerks’ studio in the ‘30s. For all his amazing talent as an animator, Iwerks was not an effective director. The rubbery animation and unstructured stories in his cartoons looked old-fashioned beside the more realistic animation and tightly plotted stories Disney pioneered (and other studios copied). If the public failed to respond to Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper, it more likely was because they never developed real personalities. (The recent reissue of the Iwerks shorts on DVD confirms the problems.) Acknowledging these limitations--which in no way diminish Iwerks’ technical achievements or the significance of his contributions to the art of animation--would have made “Hand” a more balanced and satisfying film.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: suitable for all ages.

‘The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story’

Walt Disney Pictures presentation of a Leslie Iwerks Film. Writer, producer, director Leslie Iwerks. Narrator Kelsey Grammer. Music John Debney, Louis Febre. Director of photography Shana Hagan. Editors Stephen Myers, Seth Flaum. Sound editor Warren Kleiman. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

In limited release.


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