Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation

published by Disney Editions, hardcover, 310 pages, richly illustrated throughout, including photographs and animation artwork.

Every so often, fans of animation get a rare and perfect blessing, and in this case it’s an author in his prime making good on a publishing opportunity of a lifetime. 

John Canemaker is, surely, the single-most prominent writer of animation books in the world, so this is no small star-crossed occasion. 

Several books already in his oeuvre would be capstones to any career, but this one, WALT DISNEY’S NINE OLD MEN, might stand as his greatest. 

His Disney research over the last twenty years has taken him frequently through Nine Old Men territory. In fact, it’s frequently taken him directly to the Nine, some of with whom he has maintained friendships. 

Simply put, they are indispensable resources, an historian’s strongest access to the secrets of animation’s Golden Age. 

Yet the Nine Old Men enjoyed more than just ringside seats to the Golden Age; their own story is as much the story of Disney animation as any other

Walt Disney, with his natural flair for publicity, made this book possible (years in advance) by simply giving the members of his Animation Board their collective name when they were still nine rather young men. In naming them, their legend grew. 

But it was they, the most loyal and talented of his animators, who allowed Walt’s stature to endure. With Walt’s diminishing interest in the animated features, they perhaps prematurely became the studio elders. 

And as much as they shaped the course of Disney animation for decades to come, they led by always asking themselves: what would Walt do? They so revered the past that they became like monks, both carrying on a tradition and also carrying that tradition on to a new generation of animators.

John Canemaker understands this, and he also is monk-like in passing along their stories. His nine biographies within this book provide many observations from today’s master animators and also pay homage to the original masters on whose shoulders the Nine were fully aware they stood. 

He orders the book’s biographies by studio hiring dates, starting with Les Clark, then moving on to Woolie Reitherman, Eric Larson, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, and Marc Davis. 

With twenty years of research under his belt, and the corroboration of peers in the field, Canemaker has written a remarkable and fitting tribute to these important artists whose animated sequences comprise some of the most-watched and admired films of all time.

In his preface, Canemaker cites his ambition to have always written a book modeled on Giorgio Vasari’s LIVES OF THE ARTISTS. It is inferred that, like the Italian Renaissance, a tapesty of lives might be the true story of an era. There have already been plenty of survey histories covering Disney’s Golden Age. 

With this book’s focus on nine pivotal lives, readers are offered a new revealing window on an otherwise much-told tale. 

The overlapping revelations of these parallel biographies is certainly entertaining and should surprise even longtime Disneyphiles. We discover that Kahl and Kimball, the most irreverent of the group, were the two upon whom Walt conferred “genius” status. 

Reading the other biographies reveals just how much friction this caused. Or how powerful the lobby of Frank and Ollie truly was, undermining others’ ambitions. Or how separated the clout was between the B-wing and D-Wing animators.

It is to the great credit of Disney Editions that Canemaker was allowed to write such a warts-and-all account of these men. The friction between the Nine Old Men grew tense after Walt’s passing, as they bristled at each others’ efforts to maintain the Disney tradition. 

Most of them retired in disgust. Somehow, however, they not only survived, but saved the feature animation unit by delivering hit films even after Walt’s death and by endowing a future through the nurturing of young trainees in the 1970s: animators like Glen Keane, Don Bluth, John Lasseter, and Andreas Deja, among others. 

And, as with previous instances when the Disney corporation has allowed honest appraisals, the Disney luster is only enhanced, not tarnished, when we’re allowed in to see what a struggle it all was, to see what a miracle it really is that the dream outlives Walt.

If there is any unrealized portion of the book, it would have to be the end of the era. Of course, it’s probably the area where most fans will be least interested. 

At this stage in the Nine Old Men’s lives, with their energy withering under a new unsympathetic management, they left the studio in either poor health or poor spirits. It’s depressing to read, though some of them did live long enough to see the studio’s fortunes turn by the 1990’s, and those left of the Nine were vindicated by the films animated by their apt pupils. 

However, a reader is left with occasional unfinished business. For instance, there is the revelation that Frank and Ollie left the studio in 1978 in large part because the death of producer Bill Walsh was “almost equally traumatic” as Walt’s death, without much more explanation. 

Granted, a fuller account of the darkest years of Disney Feature Animation is a story big enough for an entirely new book and need not be the point of this one.

The story of the Nine Old Men is really an uplifting one, and it would be at the peril of a writer’s better instincts to dwell on the negative. Canemaker typically ends each biography with a humbling and humanizing account of each man.

Sometimes, we learn, even these great talents struggled to make a good drawing. Many of them kept up a youthful wonder of all things new. And all of them, even in their hardest moments, took a profound satisfaction in having been a part of the magic of Disney. 

This book celebrates the achievements of these men and clarifies exactly what those achievements were. As well, lots of photographs and representative animation art fill the pages of this coffee table edition, nicely completing the text.

It’s a book that looks and feels important, and fortunately its heft is matched by the author’s engaging writing. Frank Thomas wrote Canemaker during the early stages of this book, imploring him, “don’t give it that sugary Disney treatment, these are real people leading real lives.” 

Canemaker obliged, and readers can now enjoy a book that immediately deserves a place among the very best animation books. 

It is a tribute that arrives at a time when Disney Feature Animation once again faces an uncertain future. Perhaps the lessons of Nine Old Men might again offer some new promise.

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