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Masters of Animation

by John Grant

(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 cover scancoffee-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 sheer serendipity.)

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 working.

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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© Randy M Dannenfelser 22 December 2001