Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. A Review



There are precious few people who can claim to have worked for both Walt Disney and John Lassiter. Floyd Norman is one of them. The literal Disney Legend has his life and career chronicled in Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. Breaking down barriers without ever giving it much thought, we see the measure of a man who cloaks himself in his illustrations. 

Floyd Norman loved to draw from his earliest days, inspired by seeing Dumbo in a California theater. Norman grew up in a family that attended theater, museums and musical performances. The Norman family also did not think that race was a determining factor for or against them. While Floyd was aware that he was black, it never occurred to him that he could not work at the Disney Studios because he was black. As Norman put it, he did not see himself as black, America did.

He was hired at Disney, which may not have been the most progressive of studios but which in this case did not see color, only talent. Norman worked his way up from an "inbetweener" (someone who illustrates the animation between a set of movements), all the way up to working on One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone.

After Walt Disney died, Norman formed Vignette Films with other African-American illustrators and filmmakers. The company focused on films on black history, even chronicling the Watts Riots with Roy Disney's camera. Eventually, he moved on to work with Bill Cosby on the Fat Albert animated series and the Hanna-Barbera Company. Finding his way back to Disney, where he wrote for the comic books, he was frustrated when he was forced into retirement at 65. Despite this, Norman found his way back once again, with some work on Toy Story 2 to keep up with the times. Things eventually come full circle for Norman, when he works on a special feature for the One Hundred and One Dalmatians DVD, extending a sequence that had been shortened for the original. 

The portrait of Floyd Norman in An Animated Life is of a man who at then-79 does not look back so much in wonder as in mostly joy. His outlook throughout the film is one of almost perpetual optimism and a love of life. That is not to say that Norman sees the world through rose-colored glasses. While he does not raise his voice or show visible anger at his forced retirement, you know that there is resentment, even perhaps bitterness, at how he was initially shunted off. As his Vignette Films partner Leo Sullivan observes with Norman, race was not an issue, ageism is a big issue. 

Norman is one of the few animators still alive who knew Walt Disney personally. At a surprise birthday party for Norman (which he was uncomfortable with), he remarks to someone next to him that there are only three people left who worked on The Jungle Book: Bruce Reitherman (the voice of Mowgli), composer Richard Sherman, and himself. As someone with first-hand experience with both the Disney Studio and Walt Disney himself, his insights into the movie mogul are important. Norman bristles at the idea that Disney was a racist, so much so that he penned an open letter countering Meryl Streep's assertions that Disney was. She, unlike Norman, did not know the man. Norman observes that Disney was not brutal but blunt, unafraid to remove long-worked on sequences if he felt they did not work for the film. Norman states that he consciously sat behind Uncle Walt so as to not be in his eyesight and thus, have to answer questions.

An Animated Life takes him to both the Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco and the Walt Disney statue where Norman's name is inscribed as a Disney Legend. Norman has great respect for Disney the man, with a little nostalgia at the museum. He still, however, cannot resist a quip, wryly observing that Walt Disney was not as tall in real life as his statue.

Norman, in his quiet way, was a pioneer. He might not think that being the first black animator at Disney is remarkable, but it is. More than once, Norman says that he is not a black filmmaker, just a filmmaker. While Vignette Films did specialize in black history and topics, he saw it as a way to serve an underrepresented audience, not a political act. Norman and Sullivan were, to use Sullivan's terms, the "docile part of the movement". 

He was, in his way, an activist, but his activism veered more towards age discrimination than race discrimination. Norman was not immune to racism, but he saw it as the other person's problem, not his. His race did not prevent him from pursuing his love of animation. His age, however, did, and that bothered him. His second wife or Sullivan (I cannot remember which) observed that when Norman wrote his memoir, he was allowed to talk about race but Disney insisted on removing his views on age discrimination. 

Norman's reflections are insightful and amusing. Everything from having Scarlett Johansson sing a sweet Happy Birthday to Norman (as she was recording her dialogue for the live-action Jungle Book) to how Watts rioters literally paused while he and Sullivan changed film to chronicle the chaos is taken with good grace and delight. Seeing him with his former Hanna-Barbera colleagues at a weekly lunch and his "Floydering" (when he wanders the Disney Studios at will) is amusing and charming. 

Floyd Norman is many things. According to Gary Trousdale, the co-director of Beauty and the Beast, Norman is "the Forrest Gump of animation". For others, he is a trailblazer who can count his creation to the Soul Train opening as a minor work. Floyd Norman: An Animated Life gives one a fascinating portrait of the man and the artist, one who broke barriers and has many a tale to tell, almost always with a smile and warm laugh.


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