An Interview with John CaneMaker and a look at Walt Disney's Nine Old Men
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Canemaker's book forces those of us devoted to personality animation, either professionally or recreationally, to take a long hard look at what we are being served in theatres these days. Once you have read and understood the complexities of the various star performers in Peter Pan, Milt Kahl's Peter, Frank Thomas' Captain Hook and Ollie Johnston's Mr. Smee, go take another look at Return to Neverland. I suspect that like me you will see a less mature (though surely no less ambitious or earnest) effort with these characters. It is akin to pitching a remake of "Some Like It Hot" to Matt Damon and Ben Afleck without any regard for how Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis imprinted the roles. These are not merely cartoon characters, these are great performances - and defined by more than model sheets. No, these are the graphic embodiment of three master artists at the height of their craft. So it is with Tarzan, Jane, Simba, Rafiki, Ariel, Meeko and others. That is not to say that the characters are so sacred that they cannot be brought to life ever again. But electing to call them back into the service of the studio surely deserves at least a moment's consideration for the experience and respect they require - namely a certain level of maturation in the artists driving them on the page. Is it possible that commercial considerations influencing the stock performance of the company will end up short changing audiences? Worse, will audiences thin out as the ever intangible "something special" that makes Disney's animation so recognizably different from other studios is diluted to the point that it lowers expectations? That is doubtful so long as the classics are there to remind us of the promise. However, what if the promise isn't kept? What then?
I brought this up in my conversation with Canemaker, who wisely pointed out that the Disney studio has always been "on the brink." The book has numerous references to the dissatisfaction with the changes many of the Nine Old Men saw. Some grew dissatisfied around the time of the infamous strike in 1941, and others around the 1970's, post-Walt. I confess to perhaps stirring up a concern that has always been a part of the industry. I think about how I had the privilege myself, some time ago, to sit at length with several of the then surviving Nine Old Men. During those conversations one of them, who will remain unnamed, noted how he was still so critical of and disappointed by the industry in general that he purposefully excused himself to a fictitious appointment after a half an hour in an invited private screening of Prince of Egypt with Jeffrey Katzenberg. He did so just so that he "could avoid having to respond honestly to Katzenberg's 'so, what did you think?' "
Canemaker is more optimistic, and like any objective historian, he sees both that everything old is new again and that these painful shifts have a greater purpose. Time and some perspective temper even the hardest elements. I suggest that keeping the existing core at Disney together will play a critical role in how much of the Nine Old Men's legacy successfully influences the films of this new century. "But," he adds, "just think of it - this is only 2002, it's like 1902 for that generation!" John Lasseter, take note.
John Canemaker's life long devotion to the art of personality animation and to the works of the Walt Disney Studio in particular, makes him the Dean of the subject. Not nearly old enough to be the "tenth old man", Canemaker still deserves the moniker and the equal amounts of admiration and respect that he has given his subjects. Walt Disney's Nine Old Men & the Art of Animation is a compelling account of the careers upon whose work an empire was and continues to be built and I urge you to add it to your library. It will send you winding and re-winding and searching and sampling for hours on end through your tape or DVD library of Disney animated classics. Moreover, you will get to know nine fascinating, complicated and brilliant individuals. All thanks to the brilliance of one equally fascinating and accomplished writer.
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-- Rhett Wickham
Rhett Wickham is a writer, story editor and development professional living and working in Los Angeles. Prior to moving to LA, Rhett worked as an actor and stage director in New York City following graduate studies at Tisch School of the Arts. He is a directing fellow with the Drama League of New York, and nearly a decade ago he founded AnimActing ©® to teach and coach acting, character development and story analysis to animators, story artists and layout artists - work he continues both privately and through workshops in Los Angeles, New York and Orlando. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed by our Rhett Wichham, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.
-- Posted May 7, 2002