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"What's New" Archives: April 2007

April 19, 2007:

The Book Beat

I'll be appearing at literary festivals the next two weekends, plugging The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney.

Arkansas Literary FestivalThis Saturday, April 21, at 4 p.m., I'll make a one-hour presentation titled "What Did Walt Disney Do?" at the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock. I'll try to explain Walt's essential but rather vague role at his studio. I'll read a few passages from The Animated Man, banter with the moderator, Ron Wolfe of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, play an audiotape of a 1934 radio appearance by Walt, show a few minutes on video of the Walt everyone remembers (if they remember him at all), the host of the weekly TV show, and take questions from the audience. I'll be available to sign books from 2:45 to 3:15 p.m., as well as at my presentation. Admission to the Festival (at the RiverMarket in downtown Little Rock) is free, but you'll have to pay if you want to attend the martini reception Friday evening.

LA Times Festival of BooksThe following weekend's event, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, is a considerably bigger deal, it goes without saying. (Last year's attendance of 130,000 was not that much smaller than the whole population of Little Rock.) I'll be appearing on a panel of biographers whose subject is "Icons on the Page." Books on Shakespeare and Martin Luther King Jr. are among the other biographies represented, so Walt will be in good company. The one-hour panel will take place at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 28, and I'll sign books afterward. You'll need a ticket (they're free) for the panel; click here to learn how to get one. Neal Gabler, the author of that other Disney biography, will be a member of another panel of biographers, "20th Century Lives," at 3:30 Saturday afternoon.

On Friday, April 27, the day before the Festival of Books begins, I'll be at the Disney studio in Burbank for a couple of hours, for a Q&A session at the Walt Disney Archives followed by a signing. I'm grateful to Becky Cline of the Archives staff for arranging that visit. I haven't done any research at the Archives since 1997, but I spent many weeks there in earlier years, and I've stopped by several times since then. It still feels a lot like home.

Most of the reviews of The Animated Man so far have been especially gratifying because the reviewers have understood and appreciated what I tried to do in the book. That is certainly the case with Jenny Lerew's review on her consistently intelligent blog, The Blackwing Diaries. And I love Floyd Norman's comment on Jenny's review: "Though many have tried and failed, Michael Barrier finally delivers the real Walt Disney. Finally, we have a book by an author with no agenda. Barrier's book was a delightful read, and I enjoyed every page. At last readers get to meet the same Walt Disney I met." Can't get any better than that, especially when the praise comes from someone as widely and deservedly respected as Floyd, whose Disney credentials, in animation and story, go back to the 1950s.

Terry Teachout gave the book a rave review, too, but on Commentary's blog, rather than in the magazine itself. (His rave for Hollywood Cartoons was published in the New York Times Book Review.) That may be symptomatic: editors who have published a long review of Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, or who have seen very many such reviews, will be understandably reluctant to allocate precious space to another Disney biography. Reviews of The Animated Man in mainstream media have been scarce, and I doubt they'll get much more plentiful in the next few months.

Maybe that's just as well. Most reviewers fell over themselves praising Gabler's book, and so it would be hard for them not to see The Animated Man, a very different sort of biography, as implicitly a criticism not just of Gabler's "big, booming bore" (Teachout's phrase) but also of the reviewers themselves. So The Animated Man will probably have to find its audience without much help from reviewers. But what I've heard from Jenny Lerew, Floyd Norman, and Terry Teachout—not to mention the individuals who've written to me after reading the book—makes me increasingly confident that the book and its intended audience will get together.

April 12, 2007

"Fergy Ruffs"...

So just how roughly did Norm Ferguson, one of the great Disney animators of the '30s, draw? You can get some idea by clicking here to go to an Essay page that reproduces some examples of Fergy in the rough.

...and Disney Scripts

Cock RobinA lot of people have had the idea that scripts and the like appeared in work on Disney animated films only late in the day, around the time of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, say. As I've pointed out on more than one occasion, that's wrong; the Disney stories, in the early days (specifically, the 1930s), were written as well as drawn, and probably more often written, when it comes to that.

To illustrate my point, I've added links to a couple of word-heavy Disney documents on my Capsules page devoted to Who Killed Cock Robin? One document is a one-page outline; the other is a 21-page (sic) script or continuity written in 1934 by Bill Cottrell, who was first and foremost a writer, and never drew. Click here to go to the outline, or here to go the first page of the script.

I have two reasons for posting this material. One is, as I've already said, to show the importance of words in the production of the classic Disney cartoons of the 1930s. The other is to add to the volume of information available about Who Killed Cock Robin?, in particular. For me, the great drawback to all the wonderful material posted on the Web—the drafts, the model sheets, the storyboards and photos and articles—is that it's so fragmentary. If you want to make full use of the great Pinocchio material posted recently, for example, you have little choice but to print it out and assemble it in a file or a notebook, as I've done. We need more Web sites or pages that embrace a variety of material related to a particular film.

What I've done on the Cock Robin page is supplement an account of the making of the film with a number of original documents—the outline, the continuity, the draft—and Jeff Watson's mosaic of the scenes from the finished film. Ideally there would be even more material linked to this page, such as story sketches or interview clips, but I think this is a good start. I hope to put together more pages like this one—there are, after all, many cartoons at least as deserving as Cock Robin of close scrutiny— and I hope other people do the same.

Animated Man Update

Jim Hill has good things to say about The Animated Man on his heavily visited Disney-oriented Web site. You can read his review by clicking here. Another popular Disney-themed site, LaughingPlace.com, reviewed the book favorably last week.

April 7, 2007:

Meet 'n Greet

Meet the RobinsonsI saw the new Disney animated feature, Meet the Robinsons, a few days ago, in digital 3-D. Computer-animated features really do work well in 3-D. Robinsons was preceded on the theater's program by a much earlier 3-D Disney cartoon, Working for Peanuts, with Donald Duck, and the comparison was entirely favorable to the new film. Most 3-D movies, live-action or animated, have always looked like moving cut-outs, and that is certainly true of Working for Peanuts. In Robinsons, on the other hand, there is a much stronger sense not of layered cut-outs, but of a gradual transition to real depth.

Unfortunately, I can't think of much else good to say about the film. It's a messy, knockabout farce that also tries to tug at the heartstrings, and only a great artist can reconcile such inherently incompatible elements. Shakespeare could do it (as in Macbeth, a tragedy with belly laughs), Chaplin could do it (as in City Lights, a heartbreaking comedy), and Walt Disney could do it (as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with its funny-looking little men plunged into grief). There's no evidence in Robinsons that anyone who worked on it is in that league. Instead, the sentiment makes the farce seem silly, instead of funny, and the farce makes the sentiment seem false.

Meet the Robinsons was directed by Stephen Anderson but heavily reworked by John Lasseter, newly arrived from Pixar. I haven't yet seen anything that identifies just what Lasseter contributed to the film (or took out of it). Does the "heart"—specifically the emphasis on family—bear Lasseter's fingerprints, just as the cozy pseudo-family of automobiles does in Cars?

Something else troublesome about Robinsons is the heavy-handed invocation of Walt Disney's memory, first in the Steamboat Willie clip in the main titles and then, at the end, in the quotation (whose source I don't recognize) that links Walt with one of Robinsons' characters: “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” This is, to me, using Walt as a crutch, and I'm not sure how to reconcile it with the idea of "opening up new doors and doing new things."

April 4, 2007:

Mo' Mosaics

Mark Mayerson really started something by creating "mosaics" on his Web site composed of frame grabs from Pinocchio and classic Disney shorts, each frame grab corresponding to a scene on the drafts posted by Hans Perk. Jeff Watson responded to Mark's efforts by creating a mosaic of Who Killed Cock Robin? for my site, based on the draft I posted a few weeks ago, and now Jeff has created a Donald and Pluto mosaic for Hans's site.

These mosaics are not frivolous exercises. As assembled by Mark and Jeff, they give a remarkably good sense of the flow of the action in each cartoon, and they make it much easier to connect the animators' credits on the drafts to the animation on the screen. I hope we'll see a lot more of them.

Correcting the Corrections

I've been adding an occasional entry to my page devoted to "Corrections, Clarifications, and Second Thoughts" about The Animated Man. The list isn't very long, and so far I haven't felt particularly embarrassed by any of my mistakes, except for a howler in one of the captions.

I was acutely embarrassed, though, by a mistake I made on the page noting a few misstatements in my audio commentaries for the Looney Tunes DVDs. While I was in a rush to get ready for house guests, I somehow managed to identify Johnny Weissmuller's companion in the Tarzan series as "Margaret O'Sullavan," rather than Maureen O'Sullivan. I know the difference between Maureen O'Sullivan and Margaret Sullavan, but they merged in my mind. Fortunately, Ken McAlinden saved me from myself.

Shop Around Corner posterMargaret Sullavan wouldn't be anyone's choice as Tarzan's consort, but she was a wonderful actress, perhaps at her best in Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner. When I watch that film, as I do frequently, I marvel at the delicacy of scenes like the one in which Sullavan speaks about her mysterious lover—whom she knows only through his letters—to James Stewart, who is that lover and has just learned that Sullavan is the woman whose letters have captured his own heart.

Has anything in animation ever matched the tenderness of such scenes, or shown such boundless empathy for ordinary people? Is there anyone working in animation today who aspires to have their work bear comparison with Lubitsch at his best? I'm afraid the answer to both questions is almost certainly "no."

Speaking of DVDs....

Now that the four-DVD set of Fleischer Popeye cartoons has been officially announced, I can in good conscience mention that I recorded audio commentaries for six of the Fleischer cartoons (with interview excerpts from old Fleischer hands like Dave Tendlar and Jack Mercer) when I was in Los Angeles in January.

I also sat for a video interview for the set, my first such interview for a DVD "extra"—a rather curious fact, considering that I've devoted more attention to the Disney and Warner cartoons than the Fleischers. A lot of other people have been interviewed for the Popeye set, so I will probably show up on the screen very briefly, if at all. I must admit that will suit me fine.

A Thrill a Minute

As always, I'm impressed by the reporting skills of The Onion's staff, and by that esteemed publication's ability to get at the essence of, for example, today's Walt Disney Company.