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Walt Disney's Nine Old Men & The Art Of Animation

Robin Allan reviews John Canemaker's new book, Walt Disney's Nine Old Men & The Art Of Animation, and declares it "one of the few great books on the golden age of Disney."

This is an outstanding addition to our studies of animation in general and Disney animation in particular. John Canemaker has given us a lively and fascinating account of the famous nine old men of the golden age of Disney animation. There are many books about Disney and few of them are of any worth -- most are glossy coffee-table accounts of particular films, hagiographic to the point of risibility (for example, note the number of self-congratulatory comments in the recent book about the lamentable Fantasia/2000). Some are inaccurate, some critically enclosed in their own arcane academic jargon. John Canemaker's studies -- this is his third major work on Disney art -- are meticulous and scholarly but without the gobbledy-gook of academe, and they are enlivened with his own spirited, idiosyncratic and racy style. To put it simply, he is a good read. Although I have some criticism about the pictures in the new book, in general I prefer this layout and design to Canemaker's previous work on the story artists, Paper Dreams (NY: Hyperion, 1999), which has wonderful reproductions, but is a little unwieldy to handle and perhaps not as tightly structured as his new study. Here, his attention is fully focused on the lives and work of nine remarkable artists, who struggled, fought and sweated for their master Walt Disney, whose charismatic, curmudgeonly presence inhabits every page.

The Mechanics

May I get my one criticism of this fine book out of the way as soon as possible; Canemaker's previous books have been supremely well illustrated -- as a practicing artist and animator himself he has provided (with the collaboration of his designers) outstanding reproductions from many sources. My cavil over the pictures for the new book is not so much that they vary in quality as reproductions, but that they have not been captioned fully enough. I realize that additional information on the page would take up excessive space, but it would have been valuable for us to know what originated as a still, a frame blow-up, or a cel mounted on an original production background vs. one mounted on a post-production background, very different from the original background. One illustration is reversed (p20), one appears to be made up of cels from different scenes (p284) and others are clearly cels laid over post-production backgrounds (pp217, 246 and 249). There is also inconsistency of colour and tone on the same page (see p220 with what appear to be three frame blow-ups). I would also have liked to see a brief mention, perhaps at the end of the book, of picture credits, for not all the illustrations come from the Disney Company's sources.

Having said that, the author's remarkable research has given us a dazzling display not only of the nine old men's creative output, but also fascinating photographs of themselves at many stages of their lives, and photographs of their colleagues, families and friends. The men come to life through both text and pictures, and the illustrations are closely linked to textual reference, so that we can see what the author is writing about. I also like very much the film frames running in sequence down the page; these little pictures flicker to life in our mind's eye as our gaze travels down the page. This device is used again and again to astonishing effect, the animator's art springing to life; it is a splendid accompaniment.

John Canemaker is our primary Disney historian; he has studied the work of the studio for years and has interviewed many of the artists who worked there. He is supremely qualified to write this definitive account of the nine old men, and he draws on reserves of knowledge about many other aspects of the Disney organization. Thus, while we learn about the history and background of these nine great animators, we also learn about their mentors and influences. The first talents at Disney included men like Ham Luske, Norman Ferguson and Freddy Moore, all of whom figure in these pages, though Canemaker keeps his sights firmly on the nine men themselves. We are introduced to them warts and all; these are real fellows with their ambitions and weaknesses revealed. They may be supreme artists but they are human like the rest of us. They are ambitious, ruthless, caring and vulnerable by turns and as we follow their adventures through the golden age and beyond, we see the subtle shifts of power waged between them, and how Walt Disney was able to balance their talents in his relentless pursuit for excellence.

What Awaits You...

The gentle Les Clark, teamsman and loyal servant, animated the beautiful delicacy of the dewdrop fairies in "The Nutcracker Suite" from Fantasia. He also animated complicated scenes in Snow White, and his talent is contrasted with the energetic and broad strokes of Woolie Reitherman, who brought Monstro the whale to life, as well as Timothy Mouse and the battle of the dinosaurs in the "Rite of Spring" section from Fantasia. We learn of a diffident vulnerability in this bluff self-confident man who served as a pilot in the Second World War. He returned to Disney to animate one of the few gripping moments of Sleeping Beauty and then became a director. In turn his talent is contrasted with the quiet authority of Eric Larson, that most patient and courteous of teachers, inspiring many of the younger animators who today gladly acknowledge their debt to him. Figaro the kitten, trying to open the window in Pinocchio, the incorrigible Peg, she of the swaying hips and come-hither eyes in the dog-pound from Lady and the Tramp are two of the characters brought to life by this artist, who suffered greatly in later life not only through the death of his beloved wife, but also through changes occurring at the Disney studio. John Canemaker charts the painful story of Larson's later years with detached but sympathetic clarity.

Larson's story is followed by chapters on the talents of Ward Kimball and Milt Kahl, the one a sprightly imp of a man whose insecure childhood caused him to develop a carapace of self-centred showmanship, the other a driven loner, who, also with an insecure background, grew a shell of egocentricity which made him an uncomfortable companion. Kimball's frantic clowning has given us some of the zaniest and most exuberant characters in Disney films from the singing crows in Dumbo to Panchito and his colleagues Donald Duck and Jose Carioca singing the title song from The Three Caballeros. John Canemaker is fascinating on Kimball and Kahl though I cannot share his enthusiasm for Kahl's animation of the Disney heroes and heroines; however, Kahl's superlative draughtsmanship and feeling for character is evident in his delineation of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book and Madame Medusa in The Rescuers.

Canemaker is equally interesting on the work of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, those indestructible veterans of the business who have given us the Bible of animation in their great study Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (NY: Abbeville, 1981). Here again Canemaker points to highlights in the animating careers of these men, and half the fun of his book lies in our pleasure in agreeing with -- or opposing -- his aesthetic judgements over the famous characters that these nine old men have brought to life. While I wholeheartedly agree about the warmth and tenderness with which Thomas invests the Bella Notte scene from Lady and the Tramp, I find mawkish the squirrel scenes from The Sword in the Stone. There is a delicate line to be drawn between deeply felt and truthful delineation (Dumbo and his mother in the song "Baby Mine" or Rufus the cat and the little orphan Penny from The Rescuers) and over-emotional scenes played for effect (the "Twitterpated" scenes from Bambi for example), and I am afraid that I find the Smee/Hook scenes from Peter Pan heavily overweighted.

Canemaker's book concludes with chapters on the gifted, modest John Lounsbery and the Renaissance man Marc Davis, so recently lost to us (he died in 2000). Lounsbery put into his animation a swashbuckling exuberance and vividness in almost everything he touched, from the vaudeville act of the Fox and Cat from Pinocchio, to the exuberant Ben Ali who woos Hyacinth Hippo so gallantly in the "Dance of the Hours" from Fantasia. Then there is his Italian duo -- Tony and Joe who sing to Lady and Tramp under the stars and washing lines, and another pair, the baduns Horace and Jasper so ineptly assisting Cruella DeVil in 101 Dalmatians. Thomas and Johnston are quoted in this book (p257) as declaring that Lounsbery's drawings "were simple and loose and full of energy. They had volume and that elusive quality of life."

Marc Davis is perhaps the most versatile of all the nine old men -- he was a brilliant story artist (his uncredited scenes from Victory Through Air Power attest to this talent), animator of two unforgettable characters, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Cruella DeVil from 101 Dalmatians, as well as designing three dimensional characters for the rides at Disneyland. He also painted brilliantly. His is a prodigious achievement and it seems appropriate that Canemaker should conclude his book with a study of this Renaissance man, though all nine men are memorable and will be remembered (thanks to this book), for as long as the characters that they invested with such life survive in the Disney films that are their and our legacy. This is a remarkable tribute to remarkable men by a remarkable writer, and one of the few great books on the golden age of Disney.

Walt Disney's Nine Old Men & The Art Of Animation by John Canemaker. New York, New York: Disney Editions, 2001. 310 pages. ISBN: 0-7868-6496-6 (hardback US$60).

Robin Allan is a writer and art historian based in Derbyshire, England. He has written extensively on Disney and has lectured on the subject in Britain, Europe, Canada and the United States. His book,

Walt Disney and Europe, will be published this year by John Libbey.

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