À la recherche du animé perdu: The Proust of American cartoons

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By Scott Ross

Recently, some fourteen years after purchasing it, I finally pulled Michael Barrier’s massive animation history Hollywood Cartoons from the shelf. As a life-long cartoon nut, I’ve amassed (and yes, actually read) a pleasant and—until now, I had thought, pretty thorough—library of books on the subject. The best of these offer either an encyclopedic overview (Charles Solomon’s Enchanted Drawings, Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic) or detailed celebrations of a studio, animator, feature or cartoon character (Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson’s Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, Leslie Carbaga’s The Fleischer Story, Joe Adamson’s Tex Avery: King of Cartoons and Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hair, Steve Schneider’s That’s All, Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation, Neal Gabler’s magnificent Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and Pierre Lambert’s stunning Pinocchio, the ne plus ultra of coffee-table books on a single animated feature.) But no single title I’ve encountered has offered more detailed history, staggeringly annotated, along with a great critic and scholar’s understanding of, and ability to articulate, not merely the history of its subject but the essential mechanics of its most dispiriting failures, its middling baby-steps and its greatest successes.

Barrier, the founder and publisher of Funnyworld, which his Wiki entry describes as “the first magazine exclusively devoted to comics and animation,” draws on decades of research and his own interviews with the great exponents of American animation (pick a name at random and, if he was alive in the 1970s, chances are the author interviewed him) to shape the narrative, which, despite one’s own knowledge of history, attains a kind of breathless anxiety as one reads. (Will Walt and his staff finally pull off Snow White?) Barrier’s attention to technical detail, admirable in itself, is secondary to his innate comprehension not only of what makes for a successful cartoon, but of the tensions between what was wanted and what was achieved, as well as the irony attendant upon the creators’ intentions and how they go awry—not always to the detriment of the total effect; at times, the “failure” leads to even greater artistic achievement.

I am continually astonished at the breadth of Barrier’s scope, particularly regarding Disney. His finely-detailed, critically astute (if occasionally a bit unforgiving) rendering of the oft-told tale of the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proves that nearly everything I thought I knew about it was either entirely simplistic, woefully ignorant, or sheer myth-making. Disney himself emerges as not merely one thing or another—the result of years of, on the one hand, hagiography and, on the other, willful disparagement—but, as with most human beings (and as Richard II notes in Shakespeare’s version) “in one person many people.” Uncouth, unlettered, vulgar yet deeply sensitive, intuitive and, contradictorily, not always able to articulate the exact nature of what he wants, nor of how to get it. Yet I see in Barrier’s portrait of Walt a confirmation of my sense of Disney as the ultimate editor. While in later life, distracted by huge projects (Disneyland, EPCOT, animatronics) he became increasingly aloof from the movies his studio—seemingly even a bit bored by them—his animators have often cited his ability to look at a sequence of animation and immediately grasp its problems, even unto knowing instinctively the exact foot of film in which the quirk resided. Barrier finds the historical precedents for Walt’s shifting enthusiasms, particularly when his interest in Pinocchio waned even as it was being designed and written, in favor of his pet project, the ill-advised Fantasia.

Walt Disney with key animator Ward Kimball in 1939. One of Kimball’s early triumphs was his re-design of Jiminy Cricket. Note caricature of Walt.

Although I have a few quarrels with the author’s opinions — rumblings of political conservatism are echoed at his website, where few things seem to fill him with more horror than liberalism, unless it is the dread “Eastern Liberalism,” and I cannot fathom his refusal to see Friz Freleng’s genius— I can scarcely imagine a finer, more fulsome account of the American cartoon than Barrier’s. Indeed, he seems to me the veritable Proust of animation.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Post-Script

That last line bothered me a little; after writing it, I was sure I had read something similar.

I had.

Larry McMurtry’s comment on Pauline Kael: “She is, indeed, the Edmund Wilson of film reviewers.” Apologies to the shade of one, and the living hide of the other.

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