The Emperors' Clothes
In his long-awaited book, The
Animator's Survival Kit (Faber & Faber, trade paper,
$30), Richard Williams describes the epiphany he experienced when
he saw Walt Disney's Jungle Book (1967). "I went back
to my studio in shock," he writes, "and, through the night,
wrote a long fan letter" to Milt Kahl, whose animation in the
film had particularly impressed him. The Jungle Book, he
told Kahl, was "the absolute high point of pure animation performance."
In reading Williams, I was reminded of my second reading of Frank
Thomas and Ollie Johnston's Disney
Animation: The Illusion of Life
a few years ago. I realized then that their gold standardthe
animation they had done that they felt best represented their ambitions
and their abilitieswas in films like The Jungle Book,
Hood (1973), and The
Like Williams's book, the Thomas and Johnston book, published in
1982, contains a lot of advice for aspiring and even practicing
character animators (Thomas and Johnston's advice more general,
Williams's very specific). Most of it is undoubtedly suited to practical
application. Anyone who takes all the advice in these two books
to heart, and masters the skills they prescribe, will find himself
equipped to make animation like that in The Jungle Book and
Robin Hood. The question is, why would anyone want to?
The aforementioned films, and others made around the same timemost
of them directed by Wolfgang Reithermanare just about the
worst features ever to emerge from the Disney studio. They are shoddily
constructed as stories and lack any emotional depth, or even emotional
coherence. I'll cite some of what I found wrong with just one of
these films, quoting a review I wrote for Funnyworld after
The Jungle Book was reissued in 1978:
Baloo the bear has apparently been killed, and Bagheera the
panther is eulogizing him in pseudo-scriptural language. It is hard
to tell whether we are supposed to take this seriously or not; the
director's signals are not clear. If we knew from the beginning
that Baloo was still alive, we could chuckle at Bagheera's sanctimoniousness;
if we were persuaded that Baloo was really dead, we could weep with
his friend, the boy Mowgli. But we are shown that Baloo is still
alive precisely at the moment when it seems most like a cheatwe
have been sucked in, but not quite far enough.
The animation of The Jungle Book, I wrote, "has a dry
and studied look. Bagheera moves marvelously, like a real panther,
but since there is nothing in the story itself that requires him
to move like a panther (the fact that he's a specific kind of animal
doesn't make much difference), his feline movements look too much
like academic exercises."
I added that the dryness of the animation was used to advantage
in one instance, "to enhance the elegance of Shere Khan the
tiger." So Dick Williams and I at least agree that Milt Kahl's
animation of the tiger is the highlight of the film. But otherwise
the character animation in Jungle Book, as in other Disney
features from the Reitherman period, is overwhelmingly literal and
unimaginative. It is always polished and technically impeccable,
but it reaches consistently for the easy, obvious answer to any
animation questionof timing, staging, expression, pose, you
name itand it clutches gratefully at the crutch offered by
the hammy performances of the voice actors.
It's clear from Thomas and Johnston's book that they enjoyed animating
on such films much more than they enjoyed working on superior films
like Cinderella, and for understandable reasons: the span
of their control was greater on the later films. There is, however,
no necessary correlation between how much an artist enjoys himself
and the quality of what he produces. Otherwise the world would be
full of masterpieces painted by amateurs on Sunday afternoons.
Thomas and Johnston, both now ninety years old, are the last of
the famed Disney character animators known as the "nine old
men," a group that also included Kahl and Reitherman. They
and the other members of the nine are the subjects of Walt
Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation (Disney Editions,
$60), the latest in a series of lavishly illustrated books by John
Canemaker devoted to biographies of Disney artists.
Canemaker teaches at New York University, but his writing is mercifully
free of the vices that afflict most academic writing about animation.
The typical faculty paper consists of fashionable campus boilerplate
(on race, say, or gender, or class, or American foreign policy),
usually masquerading as "theory," into which are plugged
facts cribbed from Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Magic or,
often as not, pulled out of thin air. (Sometimes the inventions
come in batches, as in the reference to "the Jim Crow cartoons
of Columbia's Heckle and Jeckle" in the anthology called Reading
the Rabbit. Those Terrytoons characters, the "talking magpies,"
were not black stereotypes—one spoke with an English accent, the
other in Brooklynese—and Terrytoons were distributed by Fox, not
Canemaker's writing is, by contrast, solidly grounded in research
of the kind that most other academics shun. He often seeks out family
members who may be the only good sources for much of the information
he needs. Having done considerable research of that kind, I admire
Not only is Canemaker a good researcher, but he writes about his
subjects with real enthusiasm for their work and real affection
for most of them as people. Because of my respect for his methods
and his results, I made available to him, for his new book, interviews
I conducted with Milt Kahl, Les Clark, and Eric Larson (his Larson
chapter in particular draws heavily on my 1976 interview).
My reservations about the new book go in part to the biographical
approach that Canemaker has adopted for all of his recent books.
Animation as practiced at the Disney studio was very much a collaborative
enterprise, and I'm not sure how illuminating it is to examine the
studio's output by pursuing individual biographical threads. That's
especially so when the people involved worked together closely for
much of their careers. Canemaker strains to keep his chapters on
Thomas and Johnston from repeating themselves, and the problem recurs
throughout the book.
Because Canemaker writes about the nine as if they were of roughly
equal importance, and thus writes about them at roughly equal length,
some of his chapters feel padded. This is especially true of the
chapters devoted to Les Clark and John Lounsbery, whose work was
regarded, correctly, by their fellow "old men" as being
on a somewhat lower plane than that of the other seven. The Lounsbery
chapter contains a great deal of fresh and valuable information
about that very good but relatively obscure animator (he was the
first of the nine to die, in 1976, a few months before I made a
trip on which I interviewed all the survivors except Reitherman).
It's hard to believe, though, that we really needed to know about
his churchgoing habits.
My larger reservation stems from the seriousness with which Canemaker
takes the very idea of the "nine old men"he places
them and their work on a pedestal of towering height. He is hardly
alone among writers on animation in doing that, of course. Leonard
Maltin, at a tribute to Thomas and Johnston in April, praised them
for "laying the foundation of animation and then building upon
it to incredible heights." When Ward Kimball, another of the
nine, died last summer, Charles Solomon wrote in the Los Angeles
Times that the work of the "old men" "set the
standard by which all animation is judged."
But did it, really? Consider the roughly thirteen years between
the release of Steamboat Willie in 1928 and the release of
in 1941years when almost all the Disney films were dominated
not by any of the "nine old men," but by an earlier generation
of character animators that included Ham Luske, Norm Ferguson, Fred
Moore, Art Babbitt, and Bill Tytla. The advances made in those years
are simply astonishing. To watch the Disney shorts of the thirties
in roughly chronological order is to see a wonderful medium being
born, as the crude, puppet-like characters of the earliest cartoons
give way to thinking, feeling creatures of tremendous vitality.
Now consider a slightly overlapping period twice as long, starting
in 1940 with Pinocchiothe first feature shaped by major
contributions from several of the "old men," including
Kahl, Thomas, Johnston, Kimball, and Larsonand ending with
the death of Walt Disney in 1966. And ending also with production
of, ah, yes, The Jungle Book.
Compared with the trajectory of Disney animation in the thirties,
what came later was a steady decline, bottoming out in the dismal
features made in the years just after Walt Disney died. If the "nine
old men" cannot be blamed for that decline, most of them did
little or nothing to arrest it, and Reitherman certainly accelerated
it. Many of the nine were gifted animators (Frank Thomas's animation
in particular could be marvelously subtle and intelligent), but
it was only Ward Kimball, in the forties, whose animation consistently
bucked the creeping literalism that ultimately ruined the features.
It was the earlier Disney animators, rather than the nine, who
"set the standard by which all animation is judged." But
in the forties, fifties, and sixties, most of those earlier animators
were working elsewhere, if they were still alive. It was the nine
who were working for Disney. Their designation as the "nine
old men" was in common use by the fifties; there's a group
photo in Bob Thomas's 1958 book The Art of Animation. Starting
then, and continuing for the next few decades, the interests of
the Disney studio, and the animators themselves, coincided all too
closely with those of friendly journalists like Thomas, Solomon,
and John Culhane. Over time, thanks to a stream of public appearances
and laudatory newspaper and magazine articles, the nine acquired
We've been living for some time now with the consequences. I've
been struck, when watching recent Disney features like The
Emperor's New Groove (2000) and somewhat older features
Great Mouse Detective (1986), by how good the character
animation often is, how fluid and graceful. And how empty, so that
Basil, in Mouse Detective, moves wonderfully well but almost
never seems to have anything going on inside his head (as opposed
to grimacing in imitation of thought) and so never emerges as more
than the weakest simulacrum of Sherlock Holmes.
This is the sort of animationexpert only in giving the character
on the screen a superficial realitythat has emerged from the
trends that took hold during the reign of the "nine old men,"
especially when Reitherman was directing the features. There's a
painfully ironic passage in Richard Williams's book in which he
quotes Frank Thomas as criticizing such animation in 1972. Expert-but-empty
animation is, unfortunately, the natural outcome when the practice
of "personality animation" takes place in an artistic
vacuum like the one that was already sucking all the air out of
the Disney features by the early seventies.
Expert-but-empty animation is also what anyone who takes Dick Williams's
book too much to heart is likely to produce. Williams's own animation,
in films like his Christmas Carol, has always amounted to
moving illustrations (very well-drawn ones), with the barest nod
toward how a character's mental state might be reflected in its
movements. He recoils from animation with conspicuous stretch and
squash, seeing in it only crude comedy, rather than a tool that
can be used to reveal a character's emotions with great precision.
You'll not find Bob Clampett or Rod Scribner mentioned anywhere
in Williams' book.
Williams devotes a few pages at the back of his book to actingthat
is, to what should be the character animator's all but exclusive
concern once he has a grip on the mechanicsbut it's clear
his heart is not in it. To his credit, he admits as much, reproducing
a telephone conversation with Frank Thomas in which Thomas gently
refuses to rise to Williams's invitation to give him praise he did
not deserve for his disastrous animation direction of Who
Framed Roger Rabbit?
Neither the Williams book nor Canemaker's Nine Old Men has
received any attention from serious reviewers. Such neglect is a
symptom of a larger problem.
Consider the low rankings of Disney features in the American Film
Institute's 1998 poll on the hundred greatest American films. Questions
have been raised about how that poll was conducted, but there's
still no denying that Snow
White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia
finished much lower (forty-ninth and fifty-eighth) than many films
with weaker claims to a high ranking. All the other Disney features
were shut out entirely. Likewise, the hundredth anniversary of Walt
Disney's birth received scant attention from anyone except the Walt
Disney Company itselfand if anyone used that occasion to seriously
examine Disney's legacy as an artist, I missed it.
We are paying now for decades of impotent Disney animation, a good
part of it by the "nine old men," and for the extravagant
claims made on its behalf. That payment is taking the form of a
long, slow slide in public esteem for the greatest Disney films,
and for the kind of animation that made those films great.
[Posted May 2003]