Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic’s Art: Taking the Heat
One of the favorite pastimes of my early college days was reading what other critics had to say. Since I aspired to be one, it was always interesting to read their reviews on a variety of arts, because there is nothing like learning from professionals. There was no Internet in 1974, so I spent hours at the university library magazine archives pulling stacks of back issues and rifling through them for music, film, and theater reviews. Each one gave me some idea of how I was developing as a critic by allowing me to compare my opinions and tastes to others while I strove to develop a style of my own.
On one cold day in November, I came across an incredible music review from 1967. Although I disagreed with it wholeheartedly, it taught me a very important lesson about becoming a critic. The review was memorable, but the reviewer, alas, was not. I can’t recall the gentleman’s name, but he stood alone against the most popular and transformational band in history. In fact, he handed down a scathing review of perhaps their most important album, one that radically changed the development of rock music. This man totally trashed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I repeat: gave two big thumbs down to Sgt. Pepper.
So, what can aspiring animation critics learn from this? One, you must have considerable courage to do what you do. Thousands (millions in the digital age) may well call you an idiot, a fool, or even (as I was of late), “a demented monkey”. Someone out there is going to disagree with you so vehemently it will sound as if you murdered their firstborn. I can tell you only one thing with certainty about the music critic described above – even with the judgment of history against him, he never regretted that review. He may draw snickers of disdain to this day, but he did what he believed in and what he was paid for. This, my aspiring critics, is your job.
In the summer of 2003 I was asked by animation historian Jerry Beck to join his team of five contributors in writing The Animated Movie Guide. Jerry asked me to evaluate and critique the Disney films from Snow White through Home on the Range, a plum assignment indeed. When the book finally went to print, it stirred some controversies among animation fans. The one I was involved in was an instructive experience and a milestone in my career as a critic. You see, if one looks at all the Disney films in retrospective, one of them has to finish at the bottom of the pile. One did.
I have never liked the question (and neither will you), “What do you think was the worst animated feature ever made? Like Tolstoy’s families, each unhappy one is unhappy in its own way. Not only that, any feature released after your choice has the potential to surpass it. The best I can give is a list of candidates, and I may not even feel the same way about that list from month to month. When asked to give readers and audiences my opinions about the Disney manifest, I put Robin Hood (1973) in the birdcage-lining category.
Let me stress that I do not hate Robin Hood, at least not in the way that I hate the unquestioned Disney stinker Chicken Little. Robin Hood is simply an incompetent film by Disney standards, flawed in far too many places to work as an animated feature. I came to this conclusion after multiple viewings, comparison with other features both contemporary and past, and examination of the movie using critical skills I worked hard to develop over forty years of watching animation of all stripes. That, after all, is what will allow you to make your stand, unpopular though it may be. It is never enough to say that a movie sucks; anyone who buys a ticket can do that. Your job will be to articulate your opinions and back them up in a learned and observant way based on your knowledge and experience. It’s how you learn to take the heat.