J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Floyd Norman: An Animated Life—The Disney Legend Speaks His Mind

You know someone is important when the Disney mouse licenses clips and likenesses for their documentary produced outside and completely independent of the Magic Kingdom. Animator-storyman Floyd Norman has that kind of stature in the business. Although he is an officially recognized “Disney Legend,” Norman has had a complicated relationship with the Disney company, but that never diminishes his pride in the work he did there. The beloved animator takes stock of his career and speaks his mind throughout Michael Fiore & Erik Sharkey’s Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Apparently, Santa Barbara was a tucked away corner of utopia in the 1930s and 1940s, which is why the extended Norman family flocked there. According to Norman, he had a happy, well-adjusted childhood there, availing himself of the museum’s art classes, just like any other resident. As a teen, he even had the opportunity to assist local Archie Comics veteran Bill Woggon on his Katy Keene fashion model comic book. Eventually, Norman’s talent and experience landed him his dream job at the Disney studio, working under the master himself on classics like Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, Jungle Book, and 101 Dalmatians.

Walt Disney was a no-nonsense boss, but always fair in his blunt-spoken way. Years later, Norman would be incensed by Meryl Streep’s unhinged attacks on his former boss’s character, so he fired off a decidedly pointed rejoinder. Sign us up for Team Norman. After all, nobody understands the history and evolution of Disney’s corporate culture better than Norman. Frankly, he is always reluctant to make a big deal out of his status as the first African American in the animation department. As far as he seems to be concerned, race was never an issue in his career. Granted, that sentiment might come with a few caveats, but it is the ageism that forced him into early retirement that really rankled Norman, as he makes crystal clear.

It is easy to see why Norman is considered a legend among his peers and savvy ComicCon attendees. During his various Disney stints, he periodically penned satiric cartoons at the managements expense, much like vintage David Letterman needling the pinheads at G.E. He also had a tenure at Hanna-Barbara and was part of the team at Pixar that made Toy Story 2 too good to be released straight to DVD.

Norman pretty much is animation history, but he never comes across as a museum relic. Animated Life basically captures the two sides of Norman: the enthusiastic fanboy and the plain-speaking truth-teller. Both are completely engaging. As it happens, Norman’s story continued to develop as Fiore & Sharkey were documenting it.

Arguably, the extent of Disney imagery allowed throughout Animated Life says what you need to know about Norman’s place in the studio’s history. Fiore & Sharkey recognize his winning screen presence and have the good sense to run with it. The co-directors are clearly down with Team Norman as well, but Animated Life is too opinionated to be considered mere hagiography. It has an edge, but there is still plenty of nostalgia for Disney (and Hanna-Barbara and Fat Albert) fans. Highly recommended for those who value the art and craft of animation, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life opens this Friday (8/26) in New York, at the Village East and in Orlando at the AMC Disney Springs.

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