Rhett Wickham: Sincerely, Ollie Johnston
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Emotional truth is difficult to find in contemporary animation. Audiences tend to respond most strongly to truths that resonate with uncomfortable memories. Most animation, nowadays, approaches the sincere hopes and fears of childhood as suspect, and regards feelings of any sort as weakness; pathos is something to be mocked in the swampy fairy tale forests of 21st century cartoons.
OLLIE JOHNSTON, who died on Monday at the age of 95, may have been the last great American film actor working in animation to mine emotional truth unselfconsciously and without apology, if not at least a little sentimentally. Ollie’s work is impactful not because it is manipulative, but because it is honest, and in its best moments, rather brutal in its observation of the things most of us would like to avoid – fear, anger, loneliness, rage. Ollie went there for us, and it would be arrogant of any critic of Disney to ignore the bravery and grace required to make people feel these things without having to then follow immediately with a raspberry or a crude joke.
While visiting with him in his home in Flintridge, Ollie once confided in me that nearly all of the recent animation he had seen disappointed or annoyed him (although he was quite taken, at that time, by the simple, subtle emotionally specific work on the character of Thomas in Pocahontas, as animated by Ken Duncan.) He thought a lot of what was being done was too showy, and not emotionally connected. Ollie’s own work was frequently tender and sometimes comical, but always sincere. It came from the heart, he would tell you, and he would repeat it – from the heart. That’s what he missed most in the animation coming from the second and third generation that followed him at Disney.
Johnston started to work at the Walt Disney Studio in 1935, as an in-betweener, and his career spanned thirty three years. In spite of a sickly childhood, growing up on the campus of Stanford University where his father was language professor, he not only outlived his mentors, like Fred Moore and Bill Tytla, but all of his peers, most notably his beloved friend and colleague Frank Thomas, a fellow animator and inseparable friend and neighbor who, himself, was capable of taking on the mantle of countless other personalities and inhabiting them with the closest thing to method acting in animation. Ollie, however, was not a method actor, he simply was more adept at revealing himself, and as a result he needed no specific approach – just a very specific feeling to which he could attach himself, as the character. What followed was more dance than drawing. Modern day master animator Glen Keane describes it as “kissing the paper”, a gentle and almost invisible touch that wasn’t so much timid as it was mindful. That gentle brush from the tip of the pencil to the surface of the paper resulted in performances that went beyond being simply charming and cute – they were connected to the gut.
Johnston’s gut responses ranged from hilarious to heart breaking. Mr. Smee, in Peter Pan may be planted firmly and believably in the Neverland universe, but he is clearly living on his own planet; a dotty inhabitant of a fantasy world where even fantastic characters can scurry about lost in their own private distractions. It’s hysterical to watch, sometimes broad and slapstick, but so specific. Equally as specific, and yet more subtle - and too often overlooked - is his Alice, lost in Wonderland. She is graceful, mindful, and struggling to make sense of so much more than just the talking flowers and mad monarchs that surround her. In 1977’s The Rescuers, Johnston survives the fury of Milt Kahl’s desperate but still magnificently animated Medusa, by delivering an admirable and particularly stunning turn as the kidnapped orphan, Penny, and a self-caricatured cat, Rufus, who offers the little girl exactly the right dose of hope that only a pet can give a child trapped in the hell of abandonment and abusive adults. It’s heartbreaking to watch both septuagenarian feline and five year old, as they touch foreheads, resulting in a captivating pair who never cross over the line into cloying (and one need only watch less accomplished animators attempting to mimic this performance twelve years later, in another studio’s film about an orphan girl who can talk to animals, to see how a complete lack of emotional truth or specificity can make a character like this maudlin and annoying.)
Ollie’s wickedly funny Prince John in Robin Hood is mannered and silly on the surface, but seething with jealousy and rage underneath. Erupting in wildly comical bursts of ego, this regal bully reveals a bruised childhood, growing up in the shadow of his older brother. Johnston feels it, owns it, and explodes it lovingly in a comic villain who arguably outshines his partner Frank Thomas’s turn as Captain Hook. Hook may be better remembered, and Peter Pan is surely, by and large, a better overall film than Robin Hood, but Prince John is still a more emotionally complicated foil.