Designer dominated Disney books

It should be said at once that two books from Hyperion, the Disney company’s new publishing house, Disney’s Art of Animation by Bob Thomas and The Art of Mickey Mouse, editors Craig Yoe & Janet Morra-Yoe, are disappointing and overpriced for what they purport to offer, writes Robin Allan.

It is sad to be unenthusiastic about what should, at least with the Thomas book, have been a welcome addition to his earlier work on Disney. Mr Thomas is a journalist and writer of some distinction and his is still the only authorised biography of Walt Disney (NY and London: Simon and Schuster /New English Library, 1977). Drawing upon primary source material and with access to the private and official correspondence, the work remains, though slim and in the American edition unillustrated, a remarkably accurate and objective account. His Walt Disney: The Art of Animation (NY: The Golden Press, 1958) is still a model of information and explanation, with an invaluable and unique alphabetical list of artists’ credits at the end. We who were starved of information about the Studio in the late forties and fifties, devoured this book greedily, and were grateful for the balance between text and illustration. Of course it was a product of its time, intended to promote the elephantine Sleeping Beauty, but it opened doors to students of animation, allowing us to observe, beyond the hagiographical Studio publicity, the men and women working directly with Walt. The book was “designed by the Walt Disney Studio” and credit was given to an art director and three assistants.

Disney’s Art of Animation

A “producer” and thirty-six people are named in the production of the new Thomas book, or Thomas II and here is the heart of the book’s failure. It is, like much of British theatre today, designer dominated, and the result is a torturing of the text and an obfustication of the illustrations. Some pictures are grain) blow-ups of film frames, others are cut into or reduced to postage stamp size. especially in the first part of the book, which is a brief history of the Studio. Take the illustration in Thomas II of the staff on page 14, so small and dark that the faces are almost obliterated. Compare this with an illustration of staff in Thomas I on pp. 16 and 17, where the signification is explicit from the intentness of expressions on the men’s faces, to their body language and mode of dress. There is so much in the picture, not least the sight of Albert Hurter still doodling away and paying no attention to Walt and the boys (one of Hurter’s colleagues said that Albert was lost without a pencil in his hand). Other illustrations in Thomas II on pp. 38, 72, 90 and 155 for example, are also disappointing and even the colour portraits of the new artists spotlighted in part 2 would have been more interesting had they been larger, allowing us to peruse the details on desks and on storyboards.

Captions are too far away from their pictures, and some text, set in italics, looks as if it was captioning, whereas it should form part of the text, which, alas, in part one is a romp through secondary material with frequent errors of dates and facts. Scholarly work on the early predecessors of animation has been available for some time, and there is no excuse for errors about this period but there are also continuing errors about the in-house material. Take Pinocchio for example: in the Collodi story the cricket is not “crushed under the puppet’s foot” (p. 81); the expensive multiplane shot is not the opening sequence (p. 82) but the early morning scene that follows the first episode.

Part two is very much better, and it is fresh, with fascinating material and interviews with the new personnel at the Studio. The illustrations are treated with more circumspection, and we do gain a sense of the film developing and growing. The human stories are particularly interesting and sometimes touching; how typical, for example of that generous and loving man, the late lamented Eric Larson, that he should have so championed the young Polish enthusiast Andreas Deja for his importunity (p. 176).

Another disappointment is the glossing over of the extraordinary events of the early 1980s and the reason men like Jeffrey Katzenberg have achieved their positions of power. The aesthetic qualities, narrative drive and editorial tautness that characterised early Disney animation under Walt Disney’s ruthless control, have been recaptured, to a remarkable extent, in The Little Mermaid and still more in The Rescuers Down Under. Thomas H dismisses these films in three pages and five pictures, which is a pity because more time spent on them would throw light on the confidence expressed in the new feature.

The Art of Mickey Mouse

If Disney’s Art of Animation is disappointing, then The Art of Mickey Mouse must be dismissed in a few words. Again, the response is one of sorrow; the potential for an astringent study of the Mouse, warts and all, would have been a fascinating and continuously delightful study, but these pictures are all bland, some beautiful and many bad. How sad it is that a company is still so immature that it cannot present even the mildly acerbic or astringent. The editors have gushed their thanks to more than two hundred people for their selection, in which they have included, alas, four of their own pictures. One is reminded of Anthony Trollope, that eminently civilised and urbane purveyor of popular culture in the 19th Century, who said: “To puff and to get one’s self puffed have become different branches of a new profession.”

Disney’s Art of Animation by Bob Thomas (NY: Hyperion, 1991).
The Art of Mickey Mouse, editors Craig Yoe & Janet Morra-Yoe (NY: Hyperion, 1991).

Printed in Animator Issue 30 (Spring 1993)