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Pierre Lambert Is Back, This Time With Mickey

Charles Solomon reviews Pierre Lambert's latest book, Mickey Mouse, which, with its stunning art work, deserves a place on any Disney fan's coffee table.

Pierre Lambert regularly produces the most beautiful animation books in the world. American authors, whose editors dismiss special features as too expensive, can only look with envy on the sumptuous color reproductions, the gatefolds, the serigraph cels and the luxuriously heavy paper. How does his French publisher, Démons et Merveilles, manage to print these volumes and show a profit?

Glorious Artwork Mickey Mouse is a worthy successor to Lambert's Pinocchio. The author has once again drawn on private collections, art dealers, catalogues and the Disney studio's voluminous Animation Research Library for a handsome array of preliminary sketches, storyboard drawings, animation roughs, backgrounds and cel set-ups. Despite the popularity of the subject, only a few of these images have appeared in other books, and the reproductions are exquisite.

The text provides a brief, straightforward history of the Disney studio and its most famous character. According to the often-told story, Mickey was created on a train ride back to Los Angeles from New York: Walt Disney had lost the rights to Oswald Rabbit to Charles Mintz and needed to come up with a new character in a hurry. Lambert traces Mickey's development from the rambunctious scamp of Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie to the energetic charmer of Thru The Mirror and The Brave Little Tailor to his apex in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence of Fantasia.

Mickey's unprecedented popularity eventually turned into a gilded cage. As he attracted more fans, especially among children, he acquired more taboos. Mickey Mouse grew so unflaggingly nice, he became dull. In the few shorts the studio produced during the '50s, Mickey settled into the role of the genial suburbanite, playing straight man to Pluto and other, more broadly comic characters. A new generation of Disney artists has attempted to revivify him in Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), The Prince and the Pauper (1990) and Runaway Brain (1995). (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and other classic characters are currently appearing in Disney's Mickey MouseWorks on ABC, which began airing too late for inclusion in the book.)

Translating Gafs and Fact Finding

Unfortunately, the rather flat English translation by Jeanine Herman lacks the charm of Lambert's original French, and sentences have been inexplicably omitted. In the French version, a discussion of the best black-and-white Mickey cartoons includes the observation that several of these films were inspired by other movies: "That's why The Klondike Kid parodies the famous scene of a cabin precariously balanced on the top of a mountain in Chaplin's The Gold Rush..." For some reason, that note doesn't appear in the English edition. More significant is the omission of a statement by Ub Iwerks' son Dave that his father had sketched the prototypes of Mickey, Minnie, Clarabelle Cow, and Flip the Frog under Disney's guidance in the course of a single afternoon.

The text is also peppered with overly literal translations, misspellings and small, but surprising factual errors. When Lambert translates an interview with Walt Disney reflecting on the limits Mickey acquired over the years into French, he concludes, "Que voulez-vous faire avec un tel premier rôle," which Herman renders as, "What are you going to do with a leading role like that." The obvious meaning is "a leading man like that," and it would have been easier to quote the original interview than retranslate it. Similarly, Chip 'n Dale are "squirrels" (écureuils) in France, because there are no chipmunks in Europe; they're indigenous to North America. But Herman keeps them squirrels in English. Friz Freleng and Ben Sharpsteen are listed as producers, rather than directors.

The oddest gaff -- which appears only in the English edition -- is the note that "the 'Moonlight Sonata' by Debussy" was recorded by Leopold Stokowski for Fantasia. Walt planned to add Debussy's 'Claire de Lune' to Fantasia, but abandoned the idea when the film did poorly on its initial release. The animation was later re-cut and set to 'Blue Bayou' in Make Mine Music. Hyperion is owned by Disney, and their editors should have caught the mistakes about the studio's history.

But these caveats are too minor to weaken the appeal of this beautiful book, which made a splendid 70th birthday present for Mickey when it appeared in France last year.

Mickey Mouse, by Pierre Lambert. Foreword by Roy E. Disney. New York, New York: Hyperion, 1998. 298 pages. ISBN 0-7868-6453-2 (US$150.00)

Charles Solomon is an internationally respected critic and historian of animation. His most recent books include The Disney That Never Was (Hyperion, 1995), Les Pionniers du Dessin Animé Américain (Dreamland, Paris, 1996) and Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation (Knopf, 1989; reprinted, Wings, 1994). His writings on the subject have appeared in TV Guide, Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, Modern Maturity, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, Millimeter, The Manchester Guardian, and been reprinted in newspapers and professional journals in the United States, Canada, France, Russia, Britain, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan.