Disney and Animation Historians

Props to Memoirs of a Culture Stalker and CriticalHit009 for getting me to think about this stuff.

I recently finished reading Michael Barrier’s wonderful Walt Disney: The Animated Man. As far as Disney biographies go, it’s probably the most unbiased account of his life you will ever read, although Barrier freely admits in the opening that it is far from the “definitive biography,” and he doubts it will be written for a long time as some papers pertaining to Disney’s life are withheld by the corporation that bears his name for legal reasons still today.

But reading that book–as well as Barrier’s other myriad essays available on his website–reminded me of a problem that I keep encountering in animation history that keeps bugging me: the need and want of several historians to place Disney on a pedestal above all other studios.

The book that does this the most is Charles Solomon’s 1994 tome Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation which, while it is an excellent historical survey, clearly places Disney on a pedestal (there are two sections devoted to Disney’s output exclusively before discussing the work of others in the same period). This bugs me for a lot of reasons, but the main one is pretty easy to state.

My big problem with this line of thinking is that yes, while Disney is technically innovative and focused on the physical art of animation in a way other studios have never been, their characters–as in the stable of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the rest–aren’t visible enough to merit such devotion.

Think about it: have you ever seen an actual Mickey Mouse cartoon on TV? Of course you haven’t; Disney keeps that stuff locked up tight. The only DVD options you have for that stuff is either the insanely expensive Walt Disney Treasures boxsets or the Cartoon Favorites DVDs, which don’t have that much. The only time you ever see them on TV now is either on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (which is a show I don’t really have an opinion about one way or the other) or on the Have A Laugh! program–which takes a seven-minute short and trims it down to five minutes for some inane reason–and Re-Micks, which takes classic cartoon footage and scores it to Top 40 pop (it’s as dumb a novelty as it sounds).

By contrast, Cartoon Network–which has exclusive rights to the Looney Tunes stable of shorts–reruns the old shorts at least five times a day. Not only that, they’ve reinvented the characters with The Looney Tunes Show, which puts Bugs, Daffy & co. in a sitcom setting with new designs and lets them go (I’ve only seen a few episodes; overall, pretty good). As for the classic shorts, they’re available in the Golden Collection boxsets for the enthusiast or, for the budget-conscious, the Spotlight Collections, which are just the Golden Collection sets broken up into halves.

The Hanna-Barbera stable–Tom & Jerry, Fred Flintstone and so on–is pretty much the same deal. Affordable boxsets and easy access on TV (most of the Hanna-Barbera stable can be seen on Boomerang, Cartoon Network’s throwback channel).

Sure, all three sets of characters I’ve mentioned occupy plenty of merchandise, but there’s a greater ratio of mechandise-to-availability of actual cartoons with Disney than the other two.

And another thing: as Barrier and Solomon both document, there was a definite point where Disney short cartoons became formulaic and stale rather than fresh and innovative. Despite geniuses like Carl Barks working in the story department, Disney would–often led by Walt himself–restrict the characters to familiar patterns and jokes so as to hold up the integrity of the brand. It is Solomon, I believe, who tells a story of two Disney animators watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon in a theater at some point in the late ’40s and one asking the other  “Why aren’t we allowed to do stuff like this?”

So yeah, this deification of Disney by historians needs to stop. Yes, they’re technically innovative. Yes, their films are, even at their worst, always interesting and entertaining. But saying that Mickey, Donald & Goofy are still these multi-generational icons–when today’s kids have only grown up seeing them on merchandise–is ridiculous and annoying.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find some Daffy Duck to watch.

P.S. When Solomon addresses the then-airing Batman: The Animated Series in his book, he decries it for having “pedestrian storytelling.” Right: and that’s why it won a Daytime Emmy for writing in its first season, sparked a stylistic revolution in action animation that persists to this day, became a generational touchstone, directly influenced the comics it sprang from, and served as the foundation for a cohesive universe unlike anything ever seen in children’s cartoons before. Sure, that’s “pedestrian.”


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