The Art Of Walt Disney by Christopher Finch (book review).

Christopher Finch originally wrote this book 40 years ago. The Disney Studios has done a lot since done and needed an update and so on my table is this very large updated hardback from 2011, ‘The Art Of Walt Disney’. It isn’t the kind of book you can take to bed and read because it really is so massive and heavy. The book is stacked with photos and illustrations that should make any of you folk interested in the Disney Studio’s history positively droll.

Looking at Walt Disney’s early life and upbringing, he was certainly an active person, eager to get into the animation business which was very nascent at the time. It wasn’t an easy path neither, especially as he had ‘Oswald The Lucky Rabbit’ and half of his animation team pulled away from him by Charles Mintz. Then again, if that hadn’t happened then Mortimer and then renamed Mickey Mouse might not have happened. Ub Iwerks designed Mickey but it was Disney who supplied the story ideas and voice for some 20 years. As Finch points out, the early Mickey Mouse cartoons showed him and Minnie Mouse as less the good mice that they was later to come. Pluto also made his appearances around this time as well. Most of the Disney animators were under 30 years of age, working long hours and getting trained in all aspects as they also made the ‘Silly Symphonies’. What gave Disney the edge was being the first studio to get into sound by being able to synchronise it to the action. The pencil tests to ensure the animation was even also came from his company.

I’ve raised comment before in the three volume ‘The Hidden Art Of Disney’ about the length of time it took to train animators up. With this book you get the full details, not to mention the evening classes. Disney was also first to do storyboarding along the walls so he could see precisely what was going on.

As Mickey Mouse became the nice boy…er…mouse image of the Disney Studios, so the more manic Donald Duck’s popularity soared. Seeing the pencil stages for both of them, not to mention Goofy here and you realise their pliability when it came to animation.

As cinema usage fees was based on how long they were on the screen, it’s hardly surprising that Disney wanted to do an animated film. Seeing the preliminary work on ‘Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs’, there is a list of names for the dwarfs and only four of these names appear in the final film. A lesson in looking at all options for the best names.

Seeing the problems being overcome, one of the main ones done with ‘One Hundred And One Dalmatians’ was printing the cel from the pencils Xerox-scanned to black rather than being inked. Likewise, in future film ‘Oliver & Company’, the animator did the action but the detail was carried out by the character animators. Some jobs might have vanished but the employees were moved into different work.

Don’t think this book is devoted to how wonderful the Disney Studio is. Finch doesn’t pull any punches where films, like ‘The Black Cauldron’, failed and the reasons. If you lived through it, you’ll be well aware of when Disney had its lean periods. If it wasn’t for Roy Disney, the animation section might even have been closed, although the merchandise from it balanced the books. Oddly, the one subject throughout that is missed is Disney’s distribution arm, Buena Vista.

Obviously, there is a big section looking at Pixar. What I did find interesting is how when Disney bought them out, Pixar was allowed to keep its autonomy, which is unusual in American business practice. The parent company’s first act normally is to remove admin staff because it is seen as duplicating what it already has and then often key people with their own key people to keep the corporate image. That obviously hasn’t happened here but, then again, Pixar continue to make money which is always the bottom line in American business. That was until I read further in about the Disney notes on ‘Toy Story’ which was became counter-productive and had John Lesseter ignoring them and getting back to basics. There are other instances noted as well so you have to allow a little gloss on its autonomy.

There are also section devoted to Disney’s live action films, although this isn’t comprehensive, and his various parks around the world. It’s hard to believe that the original Disneyland started off with Disney’s love of trains when he was supposed to be taking it easy from nervous exhaustion.

There’s no denying that this is a fascinating book and if you want an all round knowledge of the Disney Studio and its growth then you will certainly want to look here. I do wonder how long before Christopher Finch will be asked to come back and add a few more chapters or even a second volume now Disney has Marvel and the ‘Star Wars’ franchise to play with.

GF Willmetts

January 2018

(pub: Abrams Books, 2011. 504 page illustrated very large hardback. Price: £60.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-81099-814-8)

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