John Canemaker has given readers the Disney animation book that's been missing for decades. Only it's the Readers Digest version. Canemaker is forced to compact nine amazing biographies into one book. Each of his nine subjects - the core group of gifted animators who defined the look and feel of Disney animation from the 1930's through the 1970's - is deserving of far more time and space than a single volume can deliver. Nevertheless, he's done an amazing job, and he introduces us to these men with the same careful critical objectivity he did in "Before the Animation Begins", Canemaker's marvelous 1996 book focusing on the great Disney visual development and story artists.
The author gives us the best un-fairy-dusted glimpse of the real day-to-day workings of Disney's shop since animator Jack Kinney's 1988 "Walt Disney And Assorted Other Characters" (admittedly limited in objectivity, but still enormously entertaining in its candor.) It's impossible not to feel the same admiration and passion as the author. Even in his harsher analysis of temperaments and turmoil the author is writing about the best of times among a group of very real artistic heroes who were such extraordinary people that you'd have treasured any time you could have spent in their company. Sadly, Canemaker only gets to brush on topics such as how the old generation influenced the new. Many of the current generation of Disney artists are interviewed for this book and they have a great deal of insight to contribute (both Andreas Dejas and John Lasseter in particular)and one wishes that the author had been afforded the luxury of a more critical analysis of the older generation's influence on this generation -- both by their presence and their absence; e.g. - in the best chapter in the book, Milt Kahl is characterized as having had the greatest influence on the look of Disney characters. Questions about what affect Kahl's abrupt departure in 1976 had on the next generation - whether by way of his absence or his reluctance to be a true mentor - deserve more space than alotted. Similarly, the reader wants to know more about how veteran Eric Larson was treated by Disney executives who handed over "The Small One" to the ambitious Don Bluth, who later broke ranks and left the studio to start his own production company leaving the studio talent pool seriously decimated.
Canemaker is both the obvious choice and greatest risk for authoring this important animated version of "The Lives of the Artists" (Cainmaker states it was his hope to emulate Vasari's work) as he is admittedly very close to two of his subjects - animators and authors Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Similarly, Ward Kimball and the late Marc Davis were friends of the author's, but he pulls fewer punches in his sharp but loving focus on the latter two. Even so, it would be hard to imagine any other author would have such an unprecedented level of trust from his subjects and their parent company, and thus such privileged access. And though his focus seems less sharp in the chapters on Thomas and Johnston, any biographer suffers from similar lapses when focusing on a living subject, particularly one whom they and the vast majority of the public hold in great affectionate esteem.
The book makes it clear that the memories of the living affect a much harsher view of the dead from among this old boy's network of disparate personalities who helped to define something as far reaching in popular culture as Disney's animated characters. Withered rivalries and carefully aged egos still pepper the perspective here and it only adds to the books ability to evoke something real, and not just the Halceon days of animation. The fact that the dead can't defend themselves even through living relatives and numerous ex-wives is a minor and admittedly unavoidable flaw, and in his preface Canemaker attempts to acknowledge it with a quote from a letter from Thomas to the author re undertaking the project. Even with obvious affection personal favorites, the author has done a terrific job of sharing insights into the passions of each of these nine men whose personalities were made immortal once filtered through such old friends as Captain Hook and Cruella DeVil.
It's to Canemaker's credit that we long for even more on each of these animators -- particularly Kahl and Larson -- and more examples of what made them great animators. Which brings us to the book's only glaring flaw: the illustrations. There simply aren't enough examples of scenes and sequences attributed to each artist -- particularly raw pencil drawings -- and the quality of photo reproductions from finished film frames and other archival material seems oddly yellow or green in tint and not up to the usual Disney publishing standards. e.g. a series of frames showing the Duke from "Cinderella" rolling his monocle between his fingers is so dark that you can barely see the referenced movement it serves to illustrate. This is greatly disappointing. Granted that many such sequences are found in Thomas & Johnston's "The Illusion of Life", but the book is out of print, and the vast resources of the Disney Animation Research Library as well as Mr. Canemaker's personal collection must be able to yield fresher and more fitting illustrations than what's found here. Again, Kahl's chapter gives us more to feast on than others, but it still isn't enough. After all, this is a visual medium we're discussing and a picture here only serves to give us reason to read another thousand written words. But, be that as it may, the book is both a MUST READ and a MUST HAVE for anyone interested in film history, animation, acting and/or Disneyana, and one hopes that Mr. Canemaker's upcoming book on Disney artist Mary Blair heralds a series of more extensive and more intimate (and hopefully much better illustrated) biographies on Kahl, Davis, Reitherman et. al. A long awaited and fine accomplishment, and easily the best book from Disney's publishing arm in 2001.