Animation Book Reviews
You will find there’s very large and wide range of Animation books on the market to choose from. Regardless if you are a novice animator, an experienced professional, or perhaps a sketching junkie, I do believe you’d probably reap the benefits of these books.
Choose a Book
Many of these books tackle drawing and sketching principles generally, making the effort to get different concepts of animation, character structure, landscapes, 2D and puppet animation, 3D animation, drawing comics and cartoons.
Many of us believe that computer animation has developed into a expertise one could only master by means of working with a computer, however, there is several things you should do the traditional way.
Animation books are available for quite a few years. You can easily find publications that has been written and published years ago and are still around and being used by so many animators right up until this very day.
DINOSAUR: THE EVOLUTION OF AN ANIMATED FEATURE by Jeff Kurti, published by Hyperion, 128 pages, softcover, lots of full color illustrations.
The good news about DINOSAUR is that the text is fairly informative about this film’s unusually long development period. Believe it or not, this feature had been kicking around in one form or another since the late 1980’s. The bad news is that by finally being released in 2000, “Dinosaur” is hardly the spectacle it once might have been, which is as problematic for the book as it is for the film. Quite simply, the final visual effects are no longer that groundbreaking, and the “magic” of CGI is not much of a story any more.
On the encouraging side, this particular Disney “Art of” book has more production coverage and interviews with the creative team than we usually see, and the ample artwork is in keeping with Hyperion’s high standards. As well, this book is softcover, so it costs a bit less (US$35 instead of $50+), though the paper quality remains very good. There’s all sorts of illustrations: storyboards, pre-vis 3D work, screen shots, color keys, and on-location photos.
The biggest problem, again, is the film itself. Because its artistic imperative was to look “real” it has no distinctive style that begs for artists or fans to study the book’s pictures. In fact, most of the film’s backgrounds are live action footage, and the intent of the film was that it should seem like a live action motion picture. There’s some interesting detailed sketches of dinosaur musculature employed for the 3D modeling, but it’s not the sort of thing that sets this book apart. “Realism,” it turns out, isn’t half as fun to look at as a good cartoon.
CHICKEN RUN: HATCHING THE MOVIE by Brian Sibley, published by Abrams, 191 pages, hardcover, 620 illustrations, 430 in full color.
Reading through this handsome companion book to the film, a reader might surely cement an opinion that Nick Park is some sort of modern Ub Iwerks. We’ve seen Park’s obsession with gadgetry in his three “Wallace and Gromit” films, and this debut feature from Aardman, which he co-directed, is filled with yet more mechanical contraptions. Though this book states that Park and Peter Lord were mostly inspired by the work of William Heath Robinson, a British cartoonist in the vein of Rube Goldberg, one does imagine a correlation between working with gadgets all day, and then placing inventions prominently within the animated narrative.
CHICKEN RUN is a particularly good companion book because it allows a closer look at the Aardman gadgets. Also, it benefits from not looking like every other animated feature in recent memory, making the book a nice departure, at least for the moment. For one, the miniature sets are great fun to look at in photographs, and there’s lots of amusing details to study that a film viewing doesn’t easily allow. Also, the revealing look at the plasticine and silicon characters is fascinating, even for anyone who knows how stop-frame animation works. It’s just that the Aardman studio is so clever, and it’s a real treat to take a visual tour of both their workshop and the making of this crowd-pleasing movie.
As this book is made available through the efforts of Dreamworks publicity, there’s no chance to expect any revelations about production conflicts or even any deeper writing about the movie. But this book doesn’t necessarily warrant that, and its strength lies with its numerous illustrations. Despite this, Brian Sibley’s text is efficient and informative. Also, it’s appropriately British, employing words like “whilst” throughout. Sibley is, after all, an English author writing about an English studio, so it gives his words a certain warmth. Yet the ultimate litmus test for this sort of book is how much a reader enjoyed the film, and thanks to good page layout and ample production materials, CHICKEN RUN: HATCHING THE MOVIE lets fans revisit the charm of this inventive feature from Aardman Animations.
BEATLETOONS: THE REAL STORY BEHIND THE CARTOON BEATLES by Mitchell Axelrod, published by Wynn Publishing, 206 pages, softcover, b&w illustrations, 8 color pages.
It’s not exactly a milestone show in TV animation, but by virtue of its tie-in with the Beatles, one of the biggest pop phenomena of the 20th century, there will always be fan interest in the Beatles cartoon which ran for 3 seasons on ABC, beginning in 1965. In fact, author Mitchell Axelrod has written a very entertaining book, and the first serious look at the creation and influence of this show. Although its impact was, of course, marginal in comparison to the real Beatles, and although “Yellow Submarine” will always remain the BeatleToon that people best remember, this show did manage to leave its mark.
It’s worth noting that “The Beatles” spawned variety musical shows like “The Jackson Five” and “The Brady Kids,” as well as cartoons like “Josie and the Pussycats.” Also, it was the first successful cartoon that featured characters who were real people. As dreadful a legacy as this may be (remember the Saturday morning Mr. T cartoon?), this was a commercial concept that was finally validated with the success of this show.
One of the highlights of this book are the reactions of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the cartoon versions of themselves. It’s pretty funny to know that Paul could do an imitation of the squeaky Americanized voice lent to him by actor Lance Percival. All the Beatles’ voices were performed by Americans, without even approximating what they sounded like, because studio execs figured that kids couldn’t understand the Liverpool accents. One result of this decision was that the show was not shown in England, despite the explosive reception by U.S. audiences, enough to garner a 51 Nielson share on its Saturday morning debut.
A bizarre charm of “The Beatles” is its tongue-in-cheek interpretations of the group’s lyrics. For instance, the episode “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is about the Fab Four meeting a lovesick octopus, and “I’ve Just Seen a Face” takes place in a haunted house. Axelrod does a nice job providing a catalogue of all the shows, including credits, synopses, and points of interest to watch out for (did you know, the Popeye character Sweetpea makes an appearance in “Tell Me What You See”). This part of the book is very handy and a lot of fun to read. In fact, the author interviewed quite a number of people to gather the full story, and it’s filled with plenty of anecdotes.
“The Beatles” was in production simultaneously in London, Australia, Canada and Holland, no doubt making the research for this book a bit difficult, but Axelrod follows all the threads of the story, reporting on how well or, more often, how badly production proceeded in each of these locales. One of the running jokes in this book is how poorly some of the animation turned out, especially the shows made in Vancouver and Sydney.
An interesting denial comes from the series’ creator, Al Brodax. He actually rejects that the film “Yellow Submarine” was originally based on the TV series or its character designs, but Axelrod makes the case against this, citing conflicting sources. Director Jack Stokes, for instance, says that King Features saw an opportunity to carry the show’s success to the big screen, and it was only later that the Beatles’ designs were changed to “reflect the times.” Much of the London animation staff worked on both the show and the feature, and the third season’s episodes began to experiment with psychedelia. The likelihood weighs heavily to one conclusion: the show begat the movie.
This book offers the full set of Peter Sanders model sheets, as well as lots of reproductions of layouts, scripts, storyboards, screen shots and photographs. The quality of these reproductions varies widely, many having a xeroxed look, and the text is rather big, making BEATLETOONS sometimes look as much like a fanzine as a book. Also, the publisher specializes in pop music books, not animation, so cartoon fans might notice a few minor errors. The two I noticed were a misspelling of Joe Barbera, and a statement that “George Dunning had worked for the National Film Board of Canada and then worked for Norman McLaren at U.P.A. studios” Not true, he worked for McLaren at the Film Board.
Outside of this, and reading past some basic explanations of animation technique that assumes no previous knowledge of the craft, cartoon fans can be assured that the research for this is actually solid. It’s certainly worthwhile reading, and it opens a door on a mostly forgotten chapter of cartoon history. BEATLETOONS is not widely available in bookstores, so be sure to order your copy via the web if you can’t find it at your local shops, or go to the BeatleToons site. It’s not by any stretch an indispensable book for cartoon fans, but if you happen to also be a Beatles fan, then you’ll surely enjoy reading it.
FANTASIA / 2000: VISIONS OF HOPE and WALT DISNEY’S FANTASIA (NEW RE-ISSUE FOR 2000) by John Culhane, published by Hyperion Press, 240 and 222 pages respectively, hardcover, lots of full color illustrations.
Inspirational artwork that is supremely good has a way of evoking a singular vision that cannot be expected to be fully realized on film. The films FANTASIA, both of them, are exceedingly ambitious. It is small wonder that in parts they fail, but it is with the benefit of the books of John Culhane that we can see how they might have soared. Take, for instance, Kay Nielsen’s sketches for the gothic procession during “Ave Maria,” and then watch the animated sequence that resulted. Not even close.
Nonetheless, the original Fantasia is an acknowledged classic, even if few critics think it’s a consistent work. The notion of Fantasia excites people, though. James Levine leaped at the chance to be the new Stokowski. Disney animators begged to work on the “sequel.” A vast pool of talent was once again assembled for FANTASIA/2000, and author John Culhane must have been elated when Roy Disney granted him his wish to be the official chronicler of the new endeavor, all the way back in 1992!
Yet once again, after all that money and all this time, FANTASIA disappoints. Only far more so than the original. Oddly, F/2000 embraces computer animation in a manner that suggests it should be as mind-blowing as, say, Fantasound in 1940. Since quite a few of the production decisions were made in the early 1990s, it might have once seemed revolutionary to lean on CG for visual splendor, but that day has passed. The 3D whales during “Pines of Rome” and later the Jack-in-the-box come off as simply creepy. If certain sequences had to be 3D, why couldn’t the Disney directors just commit to it instead of noodling with an unsettling 2D/3D hybrid? The gentle “Steadfast Tin Soldier” has so much promise, but in the end we’re left wishing that the Pixar team had done it instead (and in some ways perhaps they have, considering the similar themes of both this and Toy Story). And based on the storyboards we see in Culhane’s book, there was a lot more story left on the boards that never got to enrich this segment.
The two great highlights of F/2000 are “Rhapsody in Blue” and “The Carnival of the Animals,” the latter an admittedly short but entertaining bit. Not coincidentally, I suppose, these were both directed (and animated, in good part) by Eric Goldberg, a standout talent who makes these sequences fly with some virtuoso animation, as well as appropriate visual and musical balance. The Donald Duck number is ambushed by the dreadful choice of “Pomp and Circumstance,” apparently chosen by Michael Eisner himself, and a weak story that doesn’t take advantage of Donald’s character. It comes off even weaker with its back-to-back pairing with the perfectly executed “Sorceror’s Apprentice,” the only holdover from the original film.
I have always enjoyed John Culhane’s WALT DISNEY’S FANTASIA, and I especially think that the most recent incarnation of his book has a sleek-looking cover (Mickey against black, a lot nicer than the previous blue cover). Most of all, it has a great story to tell, and who would dispute that Fantasia was anything but a bold and daring move by Walt? Culhane also benefited from publishing this in 1983, offering him a little perspective and a comfortable bit of remove from a film that was released decades previous, allowing him to comment on the film’s enduring cult status. Importantly, despite having lots of illustrations, the text remains as the centerpiece of the book.
This cannot be said for FANTASIA/2000: VISIONS OF HOPE. While the inspirational art is wonderful, the text has become an extension of Disney publicity. There is no longer a particularly strong story to tell (the Imax story pales against the sheer gamble that Walt’s original film proved to be) and the book’s fawning lack of objectivity is built out of endless quotes from the film’s principals. Furthermore, the book is more pretentious than the film. It only comes in one prestige boxed edition, priced prohibitively at $75. It’s sheer eye-candy for only the most diehard fans. I’ll always prefer the original (film, and book) and everyone will prefer the price: the re-issue is only $19.95, hardcover.
CARTOON CAPERS: THE HISTORY OF CANADIAN ANIMATORS by Karen Mazurkewich, published by McArthur and Company, 308 pages, softcover, hundreds of b&w illustrations and photos, and 16 color pages of stills and cels from Canadian cartoons.
There has long been a North American debate as to why so many of America’s best comedians seem to disproportionately come from up North. Can this same argument be made for animators? Well, probably not, but Canada surely has a rich animation heritage to be proud of. Karen Mazurkewich’s highly readable new book, CARTOON CAPERS, casts a very wide net, inclusive of all things Canadian in cartoondom, regardless of how deep the affiliation may be.
Her coverage of Canadian animation moves at first chronologically, then geographically, then by topic, by individual and then ends with a treatment of digital animation. It’s a loose structure that can cause problems. For instance, because Caroline Leaf or Wendy Tilby get tucked (albeit prominently) into a chapter on women animators, it can be perceived that they are getting sleighted in not having their own separate entries as auteurs, into which only male animators are classified. Although this is not intentional, it is a by-product of a book which has to make sense of so many genres and topics which might not ordinarily be grouped together. The umbrella concept of “Canada” does not allow for a neat ordering of all these disparate elements, but in the end the presentation of all this material actually comes off quite nicely.
What succeeds in CARTOON CAPERS is its general interest approach to these widely appealing topics, and whatever the book may lack in depth of analysis, it clearly makes up for with its heaping amounts of information. Among its 300+ pages are chapters that cover the NFB, Marv Newland, the Manitoba style, Nelvana, Norman McLaren, Radio-Canada, Heavy Metal, Canadians who are Walt Disney animators, The Cat Came Back, and the influence of SoftImage, among so much else. This book is an excellent general resource, including lots of great illustrations, though mostly black & white. Hardly a page goes by that doesn’t have at least two pictures on it. The layout and design by Bill Stewart adds immeasurably to its appeal and usefulness.
Two chapters, one on Richard Williams and one on John Kricfalusi, are perhaps dubiously Canadian. While no one disputes the significance of each artist, each has spent his professional life well outside the orbit of Canada. The author even confesses that John K. “attaches little importance to his Canadian roots or Sheridan education.” Nonetheless, the spirit and reputations of both men seem so similar that one imagines that being a maverick is a little bit “Canadian.” Karen Mazurkewich suggests exactly this in her discussions of some others as well, like McLaren, Newland, and Richard Condie. In any case, both these chapters are quite good, so I don’t imagine there will be much protest as to their inclusion, though some might wish the page space afforded these men was shared a little more equitably with others. Figures like Frèdèric Back, for instance, receive only four pages to Williams’ twenty.
Another aspect of the book which is slightly bothersome is the author’s tendency to lighten up the text with clichès, such as the book’s opening line: “Once upon a time in a far away land – a place of snow and ice – there lived a middle-aged man named Charlie.” Although sentences like these are often signposts of a publicist’s disregard for facts, it seems here that this is just a stylistic quirk of an author who’s done an otherwise commendable job of researching her topic. However, sometimes it makes for statements that remain unsubstantiated: “[Richard Williams] was a superb draftsman and the fastest draw in the Western hemisphere.”
CARTOON CAPERS is one of those books that should have been published years ago. Canadian animation has been held in high regard for decades, and Karen Mazurkewich has written an entertaining and reliable account of these contributions that deserves an audience outside Canada. Especially delightful is the cover illustration by Cordell Baker, which features some recognizable characters and which perfectly captures the pleasant, efficient pace of the text. There’s still plenty of room for someone to write a detailed account of NFB animation, but for this book’s intended purpose, CAPERS is pretty much what we’d hoped for.
WALT DISNEY AND EUROPE: EUROPEAN INFLUENCES ON THE ANIMATED FEATURE FILMS OF WALT DISNEY by Robin Allan, published by the Indiana University Press in the United States, and by John Libbey & Company in all other territories, 304 pages, softcover and hardcover, amply illustrated with color and b&w illustrations.
One of the most recurring criticisms that I’ve seen in recent reviews of animation books, whether appropriate or not, is that authors don’t reveal enough about the cultural influences that affected Golden Age animation. At least we can rest assured that no one will accuse Robin Allan of this in his fine new book, WALT DISNEY AND EUROPE. It’s entirely about what did influence Disney and his animators. The period covered includes features made during Walt’s lifetime, SNOW WHITE through THE JUNGLE BOOK, though in truth it’s the classic period, 1937-1942, that absorbs much of this book’s inquiry.
Since Robin Allan is English, and seeing as he grew up under the influence of Disney “magic” (the author offers his own boyhood perspectives on seeing these classic features many years ago in British movie theaters), he has an excellent vantage point from which to study the way in which the Disney studio borrowed heavily from European artistic and literary tradition to create a uniquely American experience: the Disney fairy tale.
Of course the topic of the book seems obvious– it doesn’t take a PhD to realize that the Disney features, often set in Europe, are thereby influenced by Europe (though Dr. Allan has his PhD, just in case!). However, the book probes quite a bit deeper, unearthing specific European artists that directly influenced the Disney studio artists, and finds broader strokes that reveal something about the American psyche: New World vs. Old World and the American notion of Europe as a conceit, not a place.
It seems ironic at first that Allan devotes so many pages not to Europe, but rather to a discussion of Disney’s “home town”: Marceline, Missouri.Although Disney spent only four years of his youth in this idyllic farm-town, in contrast to the remainder which was spent in big cities, Marceline grew as mythic in his imagination as Europe seemed to him in the books he read. When years later, Disneyland was constructed, it was composed of these two poles of his imagination: rural Americana and Teutonic fantasy. With the exception of DUMBO, though, it is the traditions of Europe that win out as the outward influence on his classic filmwork.
Two films, really, are so appropriate to this American/European duality that it’s no wonder that Allan reaches his greatest moments discussing them: PINOCCHIO, the dark masterpiece that finds an American puppet fathered by a well-meaning Italian who lives in a Germanic city; and FANTASIA, the attempt to bring European high art “to the masses” in the guise of a cartoon. It’s no wonder that at times both of these films seem schizophrenic. Reading through Allan’s dissection of them can be quite a treat.
Another remarkable chapter in the book is devoted to “The Experimental Forties.” Allan suggests that as much as WWII disrupted Disney’s powerful source of revenue from Europe, ending the initial surge of costly animated features with BAMBI, it was the government war contracts that in effect saved the studio from the fickle fate of box office chemistry. With a consistent flow of work that was not dependent on whether films performed well, Disney had time, at last, to regroup his studio and to stabilize the revenue rollercoaster that had threatened his studio since the late 1930s. While Allan is not the first to support this claim, his discussion of it is perhaps the best I’ve ever read on the topic. The 40s are remembered as a period of stylistic experimentation, born of necessity, that led to innovations beyond the walls of Disney, a period which offered some fascinating diversions like MAKE MINE MUSIC.
The ultimate triumph of Disney is that Grimm’s fairy tales are now almost universally seen through the prism of Disneyfication. Europe, as filtered through Disney, now impacts how Europe sees itself. What does it mean that Euro Disney, once decried as a critical and commercial failure, is now wildly successful? What does it mean that Germans are travelling hundreds of miles into France to see the artifice of Cinderella’s Magic Castle, itself an imitation of a German castle?
Allan does not ultimately pretend to have all the answers for the Disney appeal, or to completely understand Disney the man, but he does clearly trace the influence of Europe on a group of artists and animators, mostly Americans, who endeavored to make movies that looked and seemed like Old World classics, yet were hopelessly fueled with New World optimism. The rest, as they say, was history.
Beyond Allan’s writing, this book is noteworthy for its lavish illustrations. The influence of European artists is made nowhere quite so clear as by placing them next to the work of the Disney artists. Much of the Disney work is previously unpublished, and the interleafed European art is as inspirational to readers today as it must have been to the studio artists in the 30s and 40s. Despite being as decorative as most coffee-table volumes, WALT DISNEY AND EUROPE is a decidedly scholarly work: endnotes, careful analyses, and great pictures to boot.
Robin Allan has written a very good book that offers us yet more historical insight into a topic that cartoon fans continue to relish: Disney in the Golden Age. It’s a valuable addition to animation studies, and it’s the result of many years of impeccable research by a well-known figure in the field. As a bonus, an appendix offers readers a glimpse at proposed sequences of FANTASIA that were never made. And a second appendix lists proposed features based on European sources, also never made. The one that got away: Walt Disney Presents ECHO AND NARCISSUS! Not to mention DONALD MUNCHAUSEN!
HAYAO MIYAZAKI: MASTER OF JAPANESE ANIMATION by Helen McCarthy, published by Stone Bridge Press, 239 pages, softcover with b&w illustrations and 8 pages color inserts.
HAYAO MIYAZAKI: MASTER OF ANIMATION is a welcome new book by Helen McCarthy which thankfully contributes to the recognition, outside Asia, of this accomplished Japanese director. In the author’s preface, she asks us to regard her book as “Miyazaki 101” and hopes that “it will be the first of many.” Given this, the book succeeds, but once American fans become more familiar with Miyazaki, a richer book of greater depth will have to take its place. The demands on contemporary Disney scholars, for instance, is huge considering the maturation of the field, but McCarthy has the privilege of being the first Western author to stake claim to a booklength treatment of Hayao Miyazaki before the bar has been raised.
I had hoped for a longer biography of the man, but instead only got 17 pages which sum up his life’s work. The majority of the book breaks down the films he’s directed. Each chapter covers one film, which McCarthy handles by sorting them into 5 sections: origins, art and technique, the characters, the story, and commentary. This predictable structure makes the book more useful as a reference work than a “revealing” work. Some additional biographical material does get sifted in as she covers each film, most of it very interesting.
The book spends lots of pages actually spelling out the plot details and characters at a basic level, and this is done well. This would seem unforgiveable (spoilers!), but given the state of bootleg videos of Miyazaki in the West, it makes sense. When I first saw a bootleg, without subtitles, of Princess Mononoke, I couldn’t pretend to understand the film, but I was amazed at its epic sweep and its great visuals. Only after a friend lent me the narrative he’d downloaded from a website did I then “get” the film after a second and third viewing.
McCarthy’s book is a wonderful compendium for non-subtitled or undubbed viewings, even if this isn’t her intent. She doesn’t necessarily endorse watching it in Japanese and then reading it in English. In fact, she provides updates as best she can on the Disney plans to dub each film for easier viewing by English-speaking audiences. Disney has exclusive rights to the U.S. release of Studio Ghibli films, and is fortunately contractually bound to not re-edit them.
This book is a nice first step. A greater general awareness of Miyazaki in the West is rapidly growing, and McCarthy’s work will likely ride this crest of rising interest. It is an amazing thing to be an adult and to suddenly discover the animated features of Hayao Miyazaki. It is truly shocking that such masterworks have resisted the attention of the West for such a long time. To anyone who’s seen the films of Miyazaki, this book will prove very useful and interesting. And McCarthy’s hopes will surely come true. Like Joe Adamson cracking open the door on Tex Avery with KING OF CARTOONS in 1975, she’s doing the same for Miyazaki with MASTER OF JAPANESE ANIMATION today. The first of many books.
HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS: AMERICAN ANIMATION IN ITS GOLDEN AGE, by Michael Barrier, published by Oxford University Press, hardcover, 648 pages, some b&w illustrations.
The rumors of this book have been making the rounds for years. Actually, decades. It’s hard to believe that the research for HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS has been ongoing for the last quarter-century. Many a researcher has conducted an interview with a veteran animator from the Golden Age, only to have the animator pull out a thick transcript of a previous interview with either the author Michael Barrier or his research partner Milt Gray.
“I’ve already been asked these questions,” the old animator might say as he hands you the transcript and you glance through easily 50 typed pages of questions and answers. It is this thoroughness (Barrier and Gray would request that animators read, edit and fact-check their own recorded responses for accuracy) that makes the fruits of this research so highly anticipated. So many of the significant figures in American studio animation were carefully interviewed for this book. The resulting reams of data, over 200 interviews in all, constitute the single most exhaustive effort ever conducted to record the oral history of the Golden Age of animation.
The obvious question all these years was when would the book come out? Surely there was plenty of speculation that Michael Barrier would never finish this epic. The bulk of the research, after all, was completed in the 70s and 80s, so people were beginning to wonder.
I ran into Milt Gray at an ASIFA event about a year ago, and he told me that, in fact, Barrier’s manuscript had been turned in to the Oxford Press, but it was so enormous that the editors were faced with the daunting task of asking Mike to pare down the page count. Though apparently significantly trimmed, this book is still the heftiest ever published on the topic of animation.
HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS finally appeared in bookstores in April, and it has certainly been worth the wait. In fact, arriving as it has – some twenty years after much of the principal research – it’s a sort of delayed triumph. In the 1970s, enough of the animation pioneers were still alive to document the history, but few people thought that the history of cartoons had much merit. By conducting his research in the 70s, before the ranks of pioneers had too seriously thinned, and by finally publishing in the 90s, when appreciation of animation has finally matured, Barrier delivers us a delayed gift: a definitive survey history that will remain definitive.
As the book’s title makes clear, it covers only Hollywood studio animation (although some Fleischer and Van Beuren history slips in), which emerged in the late 1920s and which concluded in the 60s with the demise of theatrical cartoons. However, this Golden Age often passes for the history of American animation, so it’s safe to conclude that HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS is perceived as a general survey work.
Barrier does a nice job tracking the influences of the various studios, weaving an interconnected history of a volatile labor force of animators that moved back and forth between a handful of employers. The documentation of the 1930s concerns mostly Disney, an era of one studio’s technical and artistic advances that has profoundly shaped everything that’s come since.
Some web-reviews have declared this book too Disney-centric, which isn’t incorrect, though in Barrier’s defense it’s perfectly reasonable to examine the 30s mostly through the prism of Disney. The detailed accounts of young Disney’s zeal and creative ambitions are fascinating, and Barrier gives us keen insight into the contributions of such animators as Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore, among others.
As the book moves chronologically into the 40s, the accomplishments of Mickey’s rivals becomes the focus. MGM, Warner Bros. and UPA all get adequate treatment, though far short of the depth that Disney in the 30s receives. Barrier is unafraid to draw conclusions, and after spending years poring over his research he seems confident in his judgments. He nearly never says that an event “might have happened like this” or “perhaps like this.” Twenty-five years of mulling archives and interpreting interviews has given a certainty to this work.
This is not to say that there won’t be controversy. His analysis of Bob Clampett’s directing, for instance, is brilliant, if opinionated. Because HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS will be deservedly perceived as such a major work, it may draw detractors to some of its details. I’m sure there are plenty of readers and diehard cartoon buffs who are right now road-testing this book for any weaknesses. I’m really curious to read a good in-depth review, even a combative one if it has any teeth. I assure you, though, that this is a book of unsurpassed integrity.
It will surely serve as a focal point of discussion among animation readers for years to come. Animation-Books has the good fortune to be inaugurated on-line at this time if for no other reason than to announce the arrival in bookstores of this excellent book by Michael Barrier. Now for a wish: will anyone publish the hundreds of pages of out-takes?