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Reviewed in the United States on September 26, 2015
Great documentary, fascinating information, that I never knew!! How did I grow up, in Southern California, without ever being educated about Ub Iwerks? In my personal opinion, this man is WAY more impressive, than Walt Disney, and was the actual artist for Mickey Mouse!?! did the animation for Steamboat Willie?, Created the animatronics for the first Disneyland rides, and Abraham Lincoln? Won Academy Awards for his concepts, animation in Mary Poppins? My mind is blown. Wow!! Ub Iwerks, should definitely get much more acknowledgement, than he ever did.
Ub Iwerks. By rights, that very unusual name should have been equal to that of Walt Disney. And for a brief time, it was.
Yet Ub is little remembered today, despite the fact that he was the true creator of Mickey Mouse. He was certainly a far better draftsman than Walt, a technical genius who succeeded in every endeavor he ever tried--animation, archery, even bowling. Everything, that is, except one--escaping the imposing shadow of his old friend and onetime partner Walt Disney.
Directed by Ub's granddaghter Leslie Iwerks and narrated by Kelsey Grammer, this documentary takes us through the various twists and turns of Ub's career. It has one distinct advantage over the Iwerks/Kenworthy book--one can see for oneself the extent of Ub's genius through his work, presented on-screen for the first time in decades. We see the first primitive efforts he and Walt produced as young commercial artists in Kansas City--the "Laugh-O-Gram" films and the "Alice in Cartoonland" series. We are also treated to rare clips of the silent "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" series (far superior to the later ones by Walter Lantz). And of course, the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons (two of which, "Plane Crazy" and "Steamboat Willie", are shown at the end of the film, animated almost exclusively by Iwerks).
In seeing the films, (particularly the ones he made as an independent producer) one gets the impression there were some pretty strange things going on in Ub's head. His best work, most of which was produced before the Hollywood crackdown on film morals, had a surprising edge to it. In one of his cartoons as an independent (he had left to form his own studio in the thirties) St. Peter in heaven is buzzed by a speeding motorist, whom the venerable saint promptly gives "the finger!" His work could be bizarre, and even morbid--one cartoon, "The Pincushion Man", took place in a land of balloon people. They were constantly menaced by their worst enemy, a humanized pincushion who delighted in popping the poor little balloony people into oblivion, effectively killing them. This, we are told, is perhaps the real reason his cartoons are not shown today. One interviewee in the film noted that Ub's cartoons could at any moment slip from "Never-Never Land into the Twilight Zone."
The only flaw in this production is that it skips over some aspects of his career, particularly the brief period he assisted cartoon producer Leon Schlesinger in making two Porky Pig cartoons. That would reunite Iwerks with one-time studio cel-washer Chuck Jones, who states in the film that Iwerks was the one who got him interested in animation. The oversight is understandable, given that this documentary was done for the Disney studio, and is not likely to give competitors any free publicity.
Ub is often unfairly portrayed in animation histories as being more interested in gadgets than art, and he did seem most at home coming up with new technical advances for film. The earliest multiplane camera (a device designed to give dimension to cartoons) and the travelling matte process are among his greatest achievements. But it is likely he lost interest in animation after Mickey Mouse because there was nowhere else he could go. One man who knew him was quoted as saying that Ub, having taken up bowling, put his ball in the closet after bowling a 300 game, never to use it again. With Mickey, Ub had already "bowled a 300" in a sense, and sought new areas to conquer.
And conquer he did. Returning to Walt in 1940 after a ten-year estrangement, he immediately set to work on devices that would make Disney's animated world more real than it had ever been. Donald Duck cavorted with Latin senoritas and Dick Van Dyke danced with animated penguins with the aid of devices invented by Ub Iwerks. Even after winning two Academy Awards for technical achievement in film, Ub retained his characteristic modesty. Of Mickey Mouse, he would say, "It's not creating (the character) that matters, it's what you do with it." For making Mickey what he bacame, Iwerks gave full credit to his friend Walt.
Iwerks died in 1971, five years after Disney. One wonders what might have occurred if he had lived long enough to witness the coming of computer animation and the Internet. One can be sure of one thing--before long, he would, as always, be three steps ahead of the rest of us, pondering what more he could do.
As a citizen of the UK I have had no chance (I believe) to see this documentary on TV; thus I ordered and bought it from Amazon. It is an eye-opener, filling in much I had only half discovered from books. To appreciate an Iwerks cartoon it has to be seen; every frame positively vibrates with life. The downside is that one wants to see full examples of the Iwerks films, not easy if you want to see good copies. I have a few on tape but they tend to be from public domain originals in low cost anthologies. Who has the rights? could there be a Disney standard issue? who knows. However, it should be noticed that a fuller version of Steamboat Willie is available on the Disney Treasury "Mickey Mouse in Black and White" along with other Iwerks - drawn Mickey Mouse cartoons.
What a wonderful documentary! Great to meet the brilliant man behind so many of the cartoons I've enjoyed. Fun and fascinating. I learned a great deal and enjoyed it thoroughly. I'd love to see a full-length, dramatic version of Ub Iwerth's life created. That's a movie that should be made!