Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic HeraldThursday, 09 June 2011 08:42
Though he was raised on Chicago’s South Side, Hollywood film director Mike Disa insists he is no tough guy, but his tough Irish Catholic roots have helped him persevere through an aggressive profession.
“I never forget where I came from, because I haven’t really gotten anywhere,” joked Disa. “I am in a very non-glamorous profession, and live in an ordinary subdivision, attend Mass and school events with my kids, and volunteer as a Cub Scout pack leader – all ordinary stuff.”
Perhaps, but with more than 20 years in the animated film industry, Disa’s accomplishments are impressive, and include four feature-length projects. “Hoodwinked Too: Hood vs. Evil,” is his latest endeavor. The 3D film stars the voices of Glenn Close, Joan Cusack, Patrick Warburton and Hayden Panettiere, and is the sequel to the original “Hoodwinked,” a 2005 release.
The sequel, released April 29, finds the heroine, Red, training with a mysterious covert group called the Sisters of the Hood. But Red is forced to cut her training short when she gets an urgent call from Nicky Flippers, who returns as head of the super-secret Happily Ever After Agency.
A wicked witch has abducted two innocent children, Hansel and Gretel, and Nicky needs Red for the search and rescue mission.
“The overall message in this film is that you can never fail unless you give up, and Red learns this lesson a few times,” said Disa. “She tries to live up to the legacy of her grandma several times and wants to be a superhero like Grandma. She tries to do things herself and screws up; but when she is about to quit trying, her grandma takes her and tells her that she hasn’t failed or lost unless she gives up. There is also another subplot in the film that is a little like the Prodigal Son story in that there is always a place for you at home if you can let go of the hatred and pain and can ask for forgiveness.”
Rather than expose children to animated films with inappropriate innuendos, trash talk and birds that “wiggle and fart” in front of the camera, Disa considers his role to be that of temporary guardian for the minds and souls of youth. He takes that role very seriously.
“I have such great memories of my dad taking us to see ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ ‘Mysterious Island’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – it was part of our family language,” he said. “Those are the types of films I desperately want to make. It is a matter of faith for me. I was called by the Lord into the arts, and I feel a responsibility to make the most of that and not just make a living. I was influenced by the nuns in Catholic school, and learned about devotions and callings and what we were put on the earth to do. I think my kids will be more proud of me if I had less and did more.”
Part of his desire to set an example for his wife Laura and their children Maggie, 11, Michael, 9, and Ben, 6, is to look for projects that are worthy of a legacy and combine them with the duties of an American artist. He does not look merely to thrill, but to make his audience laugh, and to entertain and take care of them.
“I want to direct movies that appeal to all ages with clever lines, surprises and action sequences,” he said. “I want to reach beyond the usual animation audience and not have my movies be simply a babysitter for the kids. If a family goes to the effort of seeing this film, they will be rewarded with scenes that Mom and Dad can enjoy, too. A lot of times, parents tolerate films and their kids like it. I hope that parents who come to see ‘Hoodwinked Too’ will be pleasantly surprised. If you make the effort to attend animated films, you should be getting a good story about real people that is funny, smart and respectful.”
For Disa, success is all about leaving a legacy that is pleasing to God and his children. He looks for stories that highlight overcoming difficulties, perseverance and reconciliation.
“I love the stories of saints, of Jesus, of living the great American spirit in the Midwest and overcoming tremendous odds and obstacles,” he said. “It is important to share stories where characters admit they have gone wrong, change directions and follow the right path.”
A graduate of Northern Illinois University, Disa was raised in a large family of nuns and priests; his great uncle, Fr. Peter Joyce, was the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Chicago.
“I still do hold the record as the altar boy to serve the most continuous Easter Masses in a row,” he said. “Well, that was really because I lived a block away from the church and my Uncle Pete called me whenever the other boys didn’t show up to serve Mass. It was funny; all the kids in the neighborhood would be playing ball on Sunday mornings, but there I was serving Masses, actually quite a few Masses. My family thought I would be a priest, or a fireman like one of my other uncles, but my mom joked that I would be a convict like one of my other uncles.”
His sense of humor and faith sustain Disa through the good times and the difficult times. Like most middle income Americans, he struggles with juggling family, work, faith and finances. He and his family belong to Blessed Kateri Catholic Church in Santa Clarita, Calif., where he struggles with paying Catholic school tuition costs in a sagging economy.
“We have two of the kids attend Blessed Kateri, but it is tough to come up with the tuition money,” he said. “We do have a wonderful CCD program at our parish, and some good public schools in the area, so I think we might have to make some difficult decisions soon. My oldest daughter sings in our church choir and she really enjoys that.”
Disa credits his dad for bestowing him with the love of film and painting. After he graduated college, he left for Hollywood with his portfolio, his grandfather’s beat up Delta 88, and the conviction that digital filmmaking was the future of art.
“While I am not supremely popular or wealthy, I am left with a couple of things that make me appreciate where I am today,” he said. “First, I have the security of knowing that my kids will be well fed, have insurance, school and a home, and as an artist and someone who is a filmmaker, I had better not make it about that stuff. In the end, it is all about my faith and answering to God.”