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Toon Talk: Frank and Ollie DVD
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by Kirby Holt (archives)
November 20, 2003
Kirby reviews the DVD release Frank and Ollie, a documentary on two of Disney's Nine Old Men, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Toon Talk
Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt

Frank & Ollie
Special Edition DVD

The Best of Friends
Franklin Thomas and Oliver M. Johnson were both born in 1912. They met for the first time in the Stanford Art Department in 1931 and became roommates while attending art classes in Los Angeles. Frank joined the fledgling Disney Studios in 1934, and Ollie soon followed in 1935. After Frank served a stint in the United States Air Force, her returned to the studio. Both he and Ollie married in the mid-1940s (Ollie to former Ink and Paint girl Marie in 1943, Frank to Jeanette in 1946). In 1949, their wives gave birth to their first children within a month of each other.

During their careers at Disney that spanned 23 animated features, they were part of the inner circle of Walt’s trusted animators, the “Nine Old Men?. They were responsible for such classic Disney animated moments as Bambi and Thumper on ice, the comedic interplay between Captain Hook and Mr. Smee, Lady and the Tramp’s famous spaghetti scene, and the fatherly bonding between a bear and a boy in The Jungle Book, among many, many others. They were experts in the creation and evolution of ‘personality animation’, the hallmark then, as now, of Disney character animation, passing along that knowledge to the next generation of great animators with their final films The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound. And though they both retired from Disney on January 31, 1978, they continued to collaborate as authors, publishing four books on the art of animation. Currently, they live next door to each other.

But even more so then all their brilliant talents and all their wonderful creations, Frank and Ollie are friends, and not just the type of friends who complete each other’s sentences (which they do); theirs’ is a deeply engrained friendship that goes beyond that, and it is a testament to the success of the 1995 documentary Frank and Ollie (recently released as a special edition DVD) that viewers are able to catch even a glimmer of that special bond.

Directed by Frank’s son Theodore, the film is basically a standard-issue A&E Biography-type documentary, with a typical collection of talking head testimonials (including animation historians John Canemaker and John Culhane and Disney artists Glen Keane and Andy Gaskill) and archival footage. The bulk of the film consists of its subjects discussing their art, such as how they used pathos in their comedy to make their characters more believable, and occasionally acting out a beloved scene from one of the features to demonstrate how they would imbue their creations with personality and thus, the illusion of life. Time is also allotted to the duos side passions, Ollie’s trains (like Walt and fellow animator Ward Kimball) and Frank’s music (he played piano in the jazz combo Firehouse Five plus Two, a group consisting of Disney artists that played at Disneyland and on television and even released several successful albums).

That there is nothing terribly exciting about Frank and Ollie, no grand revelations or hidden secrets, may be due to the fact that the director himself is too close to the subject matter. But if one looks closer, one can see that this quiet, sincere film is simply taking its cue from its two subjects and their lifetime commitment to their art: like Frank and Ollie themselves, the film allows the art, not the artists, to speak for itself.

Toon Talk Rating: B+

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