Masters of Animation
(Batsford, £25.00, 208 pages, hardback; published 2001.)
Why won't John Grant keep his opinions to himself?
If he did, his Masters of Animation would be a handsome coffee-table
book: one that profiles, in detail, thirty-seven of the most important
individuals, partnerships and teams in the history of the genre. A colourful
book featuring over seventy examples of artwork, each faithfully reproduced
with striking clarity and supplemented by detailed synopses of the noted
cartoons and full-length features each master has created.
But wait... It turns out that, upon first leaf-through, Masters
of Animation is actually all of that. Its real significance, however,
becomes apparent when the reader peruses each biographical entry; for
it is then that s/he realizes the book to be the thought-provoking work
of substance that it truly is.
Because, when considered in toto, Masters of Animation is actually
a critical history of animation done in biographical format. The favourites
are here: Walt Disney, Walter Lantz, Joe Hanna and Bill Barbera, the
Fleischer Brothers. The legends: Winsor McCay, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett,
Chuck Jones, Ub Iwerks, Friz Freleng. Modern masters, including Jim
Henson, Ralph Bakshi, Don Bluth, Terry Gilliam and Nick Park. And that's
less than half the animators covered. It's a scholarly volume written
without the dryness usually associated with a work of scholarship such
as this. In fact, the only thing dry about Masters of Animation
is the wit we've come to expect from Grant over the years, as found
in most of the fifty-plus books he's turned out. And the details he
presents are every bit as accurate as his writing is brisk, yet respectful
to the subject matter and affectionate toward most of the masters he
has selected to profile. This book is as fun to read as it is informative.
And Grant insists on letting his opinions run free, at times rude in
their directness. And that is where the value as well as the fun of
a good in-your-head debate lies in Masters of Animation.
Because having co-created (with John Clute) the Hugo award-winning
Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and having served as Technical Editor
on the second edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,
Grant has well established himself as a noted authority in the area
of fantasy entertainment. And having written the critically acclaimed
Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters, the man is
clearly familiar with the medium about which he renders judgments here.
And the first judgment he renders can be found in the Contents List:
the names of those he has selected as masters.
This is where the reader first cheers on or disagrees with the author.
Does George Dunning, the one-hit wonder who created the Peter Max-like
Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine, deserve to be included? Grant
supplies us with enough of Dunning's lesser-known achievements to bring
his subject up to at least borderline acceptance level. What about John
Canemaker? The author builds an impressive though unconvincing case
for his inclusion based on the respect Canemaker has garnered as one
of the premier scholars and educators in the field. (Grant calls his
animation work "interesting", a word my wife will use to summarize one
of my written pieces just before she commences to rip it apart.) And
why have such current masters as Matt Groening, John Kricfalusi and
Mike Judge been omitted? Is it because they are too contemporary to
be considered "masters" just yet? If this is the case, I would question
the inclusion of Park, creator of Chicken Run and a true innovator,
who would otherwise deserve his designation as a master. By Grant's
implied standards though, he's just too current for this volume.
Also, in any work such as this one, there is sure to be an omitted
master (or two) the reader feels should have survived the cut. Mine
happens to be Jay Ward, best known for creating the wonderful characters
on the various television incarnations of Rocky and His Friends
and The Bullwinkle Show, as well as Crusader Rabbit and Rags
Tiger, the first made-for-television cartoon series in the United
States (and featuring the prototypes for Rocky and Bullwinkle). I'd
be hard-pressed to make a case for Ward as a top-notch animator; however,
the subversive creativity of the outrageous two-level humour that was
injected into each R&B episode have endeared his characters to
generations of children and adults alike, albeit for the most part in
reruns, for over forty years. Grant's failure to mention Ward or his
body of work anywhere in the book leaves Masters of Animation
feeling a tad incomplete.
On the other hand, I was particularly impressed with the inclusion
of certain non-Hollywood masters, a segment of the animation community
too often overlooked in commercial undertakings such as this one. Grant
covers the careers of Italy's Bruno Bozzetto (the Signor Rossi
series), Great Britain's John Halas (from Budapest) and Joy Batchelor,
the fascinating Frenchman René Laloux and the controversial Czech
Jan Svankmajer, among several others. Mercifully, he has selected only
one anime master for examination, that being Hayao Miyazaki, about whom
the author writes of the Japanese master's Princess Mononoke:
"...high fantasy of a conceptual sophistication and complexity rarely
found in the written form of this subgenre and hardly at all in the
cinematic form." (Grant's subversive opinions of anime in general will
not endear him to its cultish aficionados.) Miyazaki's importance is
emphasized by the amount of space Grant devotes to him in the book:
eleven pages, third only to the seventeen given to Walt Disney and the
twelve for Ralph Bakshi. (This is not to infer that Grant necessarily
ranks the masters in order of importance by the number of pages he devotes
to each, since we would have no way of knowing this for sure. We should
be able to safely assume, however, that the author had his reasons for
devoting a certain fixed amount of space to each master, and that his
reckoning for each amount was based on judgmental intent, rather than
To a greater or lesser extent, each master passes before Grant's critical
eye. Some of the criticism is severe in its honesty. For example, the
author pulls no punches in his disdain for Hanna's and Barbera's "streamlining"
of cartoon-making for television:
With every possible corner cut in the animation process in order
to produce screen fodder at the prices the tv networks were prepared
to offer; the countless Hanna-Barbera series offer very few moments
of visual splendour and a plethora of moments of visual banality,
with pieces of animation being recycled in a further attempt to save
time and costs... It was a contest between commerce and art, and from
the very outset Hanna and Barbera assumed that commerce would win
and acted accordingly.
In fairness, though, Grant had already tempered that passage with this
one, written further back in the article:
It is hard, on being confronted by the enormous mountain of Hanna-Barbera
tv series, often virtually indistinguishable from one another; to
reconcile this [sharp decline in animation and story standards] with
the fact that, earlier in their careers, the two men created some
of the finest, funniest and most lovingly crafted theatrical animated
shorts of all time.
The author actually uses his most acid volleys while defending the
masters from his colleagues' criticisms. In one notable instance, that
being the author's spirited defence of Robert McKimson, the creator
of Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales and the Tasmanian Devil (among others),
as a significant contributor to the craft, Grant takes on fellow animation
experts Giannalberto Bendazzi, Leonard Maltin and Jeff Lenberg, each
of whom has denigrated the subject and his work in their own histories.
The author also comes to the defence of the aforementioned Bluth on
several occasions, the most terrier-like in his attack on the critics
of Titan A.E.:
Some of the advance reviewers screamed that the movie was derivative,
and of course this is true: space opera, especially movie space opera,
is by its very nature a derivative genre, with 90 percent of the ideas
and events in any given example of the form being drawn from the common
stockpot. So to accuse Titan A.E. of a lack of originality
is to betray the accuser's ignorance of the form in which Bluth was
Tough talk, but nothing there to disagree with. Grant bases each criticism
in truth derived from his own extensive knowledge of the subject. And,
like a good documentarian, he maintains a focal point for the historical
thread that connects each biography, again one with whom he happens
to be quite familiar: Walt Disney.
Because if there is one thing we learn from Masters of Animation,
it is that Walt Disney's shadow covers just about everyone in the industry
who followed him and a few who preceded him. Few chapters go by in this
book without Disney's name being mentioned in one context or another,
even with those who never worked at Disney Studios. Starting with Tex
Avery ("...had Avery been at Disney, for example, his 'excesses' would
almost certainly have been curtailed...") and continuing with Ralph
Bakshi ("And he was keen to get away from the Disney approach of 'clean-line
animation', which necessarily affected much of the other work he had
been doing"), and even pioneer John Randolph Bray (on abandoning the
idea of using colour film: "...had he had the patience to persevere,
he might later have outrivalled Walt Disney, who in 1932 successfully
backed Technicolor..."), it almost becomes a diversion to see where
Disney's name will pop up in the next biography. If this book is ever
made into a documentary series or film, the frequent mention of the
name Disney will surely inspire many a college frat-house drinking game.
Again, though, Disney's overwhelming influence on all aspects of the
genre is just another truth that must be dealt with appropriately, and
Grant has wisely chosen not to de-emphasize it.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading every blunt, honest and outrageously opinionated
passage Grant released for our consideration in Masters of Animation.
I learned quite a bit about the history of animation from this book.
And many of the critical truths of the genre that I had buried under
a thick pile of nostalgia were resurrected and reconsidered, and that
was a good thing. I don't have to agree with every opinion a writer
expresses to appreciate his work. All I ask is that he present well
written, challenging food for my thought. Masters of Animation
is an absolute thought-feast, to be sure.
A postscript: Before I sat down to write my review, I showed Masters
of Animation to a friend of mine, an industrial graphics designer
who once considered a career in animation. When he saw Ub Iwerks's name
in the index, he smiled and flipped immediately to the chapter, this
being his litmus test for the accuracy of the entire volume. As he read
it, his smile gradually broadened. Pressed for time, he finished the
chapter and quickly and excitedly leafed through the rest of the book.
As I attempted to separate my copy from him, I asked what he thought
of the author's treatment of Walt Disney's early partner and long-time
associate. While feigning a struggle, my friend responded to my question
without hesitation: "He nailed it."
He'll be interested to know that Grant nailed every entry in
this fine book. But he'll have to verify it on his own, for he'll not
be allowed near my copy of Masters of Animation any time soon.
Review by Randy M Dannenfelser.
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