"What's New" Archives: September 2004
September 30, 2004:
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO...: Leave it to The
Onion to report fearlessly on subjects that other news outlets
ROBERT CRUMB: The September issue of ArtNews has a Crumb
drawing on the cover and an article about Crumb on the inside. You
can find the cover online,
but not the article, alas. It's an amusing portrait of a great cartoonist
who is squirming uncomfortably as he tries to have it both ways:
"I'm not interested in a bunch of cake eaters that go sniff
around museums. Not at all. It's totally bizarre to me that when
my gallery sells my place-mat drawings, they tout the stains and
stuff as a selling factorlike, 'And look at the authentic
grease mark'and it adds to the value. That world is phony,
repugnant, and sick."
But ah, that phony world's checkslarge ones, I'm
suredo clear your bank, don't they, Robert? And I suspect
it has been a while since anyone has seen Crumb upholding his artistic
integrity by stuffing a grease-stained place-mat in a trash can.
Crumb has earned whatever wealth is now his, and perhaps he should
simply enjoy it. No whore ever regained her virginity by sneering
at her customers.
To judge from an accompanying photo, Crumb, who is now 61, is roughly
a decade away from becoming a dead ringer for Mr. Natural.
MORE ON FRANK THOMAS: Milt Gray, my longtime colleague and
collaborator, going back to the days when he was co-editor of Funnyworld,
had "one serious reservation" about my September 27 ruminations
on Frank Thomas:
"In the paragraph that begins 'At his best,' I feel you are
too hard on Thomas.His animation may well be broader in Lady
and the Tramp and in Bambi, but to me it is fully appropriate
because that is what those stories called for. I personally love
Thomas's animation in those two cartoons. And, in the spaghetti-eating
scenes, John Lounsberry's animation of the two Italian chefs is
even broader than Thomas's dogs, and I especially love that animation
of the chefs. I think it would be more appropriate to criticize
something else, like the literalism of the animation in the later
features, I believe that the extremely unimaginative writing is
far more to blame than the animation. If Thomas was responsible
for the writing in those cases, that would put the blame back onto
Actually, it would be closer to the mark to say that I don't think
Thomas's animation in either Lady or Bambi is broad
enough, although "broad" really isn't the word I want.
"Self-aware" or "self-critical" would be more
like it. Thomas's work in both films suffers from the "sincerity"
for which he is so often applauded, because that "sincerity"
is in the service of ideas that aren't worthy of it. What matters
is not just how sincere an animator is, but what he's sincere about,
and in both Lady and Bambi Thomas invests himself
wholeheartedly in material that is emotionally compromised.
The sequence in Lady is the harder case, because there
really is an element of parody in the spaghetti-eating sequence.
To call Thomas's animation "thumpingly obvious," as I
did, was lazy and wrong. I suspect I would feel differently about
Thomas's scenes if the surrounding film were not so diffusely sentimental,
and if Lounsbery's Italianswhom I do likewere animated
with a little less restraint and a little more Kimball-like edge.
There's wonderful subtlety in Thomas's animation of the two dogs,
as in the way Lady moves after she and Tramp accidentally kiss.
She turns her head swiftly away and then lowers it slowly, as if
recoiling automatically at first, then realizing that she liked
what happened. She is, besides, a little confused by her own pleased
reaction. It's just such precision of feeling that is lacking in
most of the rest of the film.
Milt raises a very interesting point about the interplay between
writing and animation, but in neither Lady nor, especially,
Bambi is there any reason to believe that Thomas was struggling
with writing that he found at all unsympathetic. Thomas and Ollie
Johnston do discuss some films in Disney Animation: The Illusion
of Life with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, but it's revealing
that they are probably coolest to Cinderella. It's a
much, much better written film than The Jungle Book or Robin
Hood, to name just two clunkers that they embrace wholeheartedly,
and for whose shortcomings in both story and animation they deserve
much of the blame.
As animators, Frank and Ollie were always, and understandably,
most concerned not with the quality of the writing but with opportunities
for virtuoso displays like the one in Lady. They disliked
Cinderella because it didn't offer them any. In this respect
they were much like those classical soloists who love playing concerti
that are musically flimsy but are showcases for the musician's skills.
The fatal problem with Disney Animation: The Illusion
of Life is that it renders broad judgments on animated films
even though it was written from this very narrow perspective.
DEBATE CRITIQUES: I've added comments
from a few more visitors to the site on the Feedback page devoted
to response to the Barrier-Kricfalusi
September 27, 2004:
ON FRANK THOMAS: When the great Disney animator died earlier this
month, the word "intelligent" was invoked in more than
one homage to his work, sometimes with a caveat to the effect that
"intelligent" did not mean "cold" or "analytical."
True enough; but the important point is that in Thomas's work at
its best, it was not his intelligence but his characters' intelligence
that was visible on the screen. In one Thomas scene in One Hundred
and One Dalmatians, I remember, the sense that Pongo was thinkingnot
like a dog, and not like some approximation of a human being, but
like a complete person who was somehow both dog and humanwas
so strong it was startling.
Elsewhere on the site, in my running debate
with John Kricfalusi, I defend Disney animation as successfully
depicting the "normal," in contrast to the extreme emotions
that dominate John's cartoons. Thomas's best work exemplified such
Disney animation: The characters' inner lives are revealed with
the transparency of which only animation is capable, even as the
animator subdues the visible distortions that could undermine the
matter-of-factness an animated film must have to survive the long
haul of feature length.
There's a problem, though: When an animated feature requires
a display of intense emotion, how does the animator provide it without
distorting the characters too obviously and thus violating that
carefully maintained sense of the "normal"?
Thomas knew how to do that. He showed one way in his first major
piece of animation, of the grieving Dwarfs in Snow White and
the Seven Dwarfs. There's no writhing and thrashing;
instead, Thomas's Dwarfs are stunned and all but paralyzed by a
grief far more overwhelming than they could have expected. Their
restrained movement is entirely consistent with those feelings (as
opposed to being mere twitching that keeps the drawings from going
In his animation of a Captain Hook who is trying to seduceTinkerbell
while boiling with anger, Thomas was just as subtle in his handling
of a far more active character. There is not a lot of expressive
distortion in the animation of Hookthere is instead a kaleidoscopic
flood of drawings, each one registering with incredible exactness
the split-second fluctuations in Hook's state of mind.
Such animation has its limits, of course, like any other kind
of animation. There is, for instance, an exuberant energy in Bob
Clampett's Warner cartoons that has no equivalent in Peter Pan
or any other Disney film. But Frank Thomas, at his best, solved
the problems peculiar to feature animation as well as any animator
"At his best" is a crucial qualifier. Many of the tributes
to Thomas have been specimens of what I've called "Disneyism"
and have concentrated their praise on animation thatwhatever
the skill involvedis thumpingly obvious, like the famous spaghetti-eating
sequence in Lady and the Tramp. As for Thomas's cloying work
in Bambi, the less said the better.
Such animation at least has some life to it. But animation of the
"normal" can all too easily shade into animation that
is literal and deadthe difference is that between a living
creature and an expertly made-up corpseand in such zombie-like
features as Robin Hood and The Rescuers, Thomas crossed
the line. It was, unfortunately, animation of the latter kind that
he and his longtime friend and collaborator, Ollie Johnston, chose
to embalm in the book variously called Disney Animation: The
Illusion of Life and The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.
For reasons I've set out elsewhere,
I regard that book as a continuing disaster, responsible more than
anything else for the literalism that has suffocated most of the
features that have emerged from Disney and DreamWorks in recent
years.It has constantly threatened the Pixar films as well. "Almost
all of the animators at Pixar had that book beside their drawing
tables during their formative years," Pete Docter, the director
of Monsters, Inc., told Charles Solomon for a Thomas obituary
in the Los Angeles Times, "and a lot of us still do."
Better they should dump the book in their wastebaskets and pay
closer attention to what Thomas didwhat he animated, when
he was at his peakinstead of what he wrote.
HE'S BACK: Two days ago, on the Saturday morning edition of Today,
the co-anchor Campbell Brown interviewed Marc Eliot, author of a
Cary Grant biography that is apparently full of tabloid-worthy details
about suicide attempts and drug use and homosexual liaisons. As
I listened to Ms. Brown's deferential interview of Eliot, whom she
obviously regarded as a serious biographer, I tried to remember
where I'd heard Eliot's name, and I finally placed him: he is the
author of Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, the most
notorious of Disney biographies. And now poor Cary Grant, another
safely dead Hollywood icon, is getting the treatment. No Amazon.com
link here; if you want to waste your time and money with Eliot,
you'll get no help from me.
September 24, 2004:
ALSO HEARD FROM: I've added several visitors' messages to the Feedback
page devoted to comments on my ongoing exchange with John Kricfalusi.
September 23, 2004:
I'M BACK: ...after several weeks of watching Walt Disney True-Life
Adventures and People and Places and such at the Library of Congress.
I wrote to John Kricfalusi while I was away, continuing the Barrier-Kricfalusi
September 1, 2004:
TAKING A BREAK: This will be my last posting for a few weeks. I
expect to post more of the Barrier-Kricfalusi
debate around September 25; mark your calendars. I have other
things on the fire, too, that I wasn't able to add to the site as
quickly as I hoped, a Frank Tashlin interview first among them.
In the meantime, I've added a page devoted to visitors'
comments on what John and I have been saying.
FANTASTIC PLASTIC: Reading last week's USA Today story about
DreamWorks' computer-generated Father of the Pride, I realized
that the show was not "created" in any meaningful sense,
but was constructed instead, like a computer built out of off-the-shelf
parts. And so it was: after watching the first show in this new
series last night, I can't remember seeing any piece of animation,
not even the worst of Hanna-Barbera, that was so utterly soulless
Father's principals are stock sitcom characters; there's
the fat, bumbling husband, the improbably attractive wife, the sarcastic
and vaguely Jewish old person. They're also lions, of coursethus
the garnish of zoological jokes atop the usual harmless sitcom smutalthough
they look and move less like any sort of real animal than like the
bendable, posable dolls that Father of the Pride will undoubtedly
spawn if it's a hit.
What made Father of the Pride barely watchable was the occasional
presence of an especially plastic-looking Siegfried and Roy, whose
Las Vegas animal act, now shuttered, triggered the idea for this
series in the fertile mind of Jeffrey Katzenberg. Knowing that Roy,
so bright and lively in his computer-animated form, was mauled almost
to death by one of his tigers (a species I didn't see represented
in the TV show's large supporting cast) added a welcome note of
the creepy to what was otherwise the most depressingly mundane piece
of computer animation I've yet seen.