A character analysis of the Disney menagerie

March 07, 1993|By Neil A. Grauer


John Grant.


384 pages. $40.

In his 1956 autobiography, the great British political cartoonist David Low recalled meeting Walt Disney twice. On both occasions, he was disappointed that the man he considered "the most significant figure in graphic art since Leonardo da Vinci" purposely "shied off art talk" and "looked puzzled" when asked the simple question, "Don't you like to draw?"

The answer, equally simple, was no. Disney was not much of an animator. And John Grant, another Briton, notes in his splendidly thorough and sumptuously illustrated "Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters," the man whose studio gave the world Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and approximately 900 additional characters of mostly vivid (yet occasionally vapid) personality stopped doing any of his own artwork in 1924 -- a full four years before Mickey Mouse made his debut in "Steamboat Willie," the first animated cartoon to talk.

"Walt was responsible single-handedly for the creation of Mickey's personality while Ub Iwerks (a man known only to animation buffs) designed the physical appearance of the little fellow . . ." Mr. Grant writes.

The genius of Walt Disney (1901-1966) -- and genius it certainly was -- lay in conceptualization and inspiration. He brought together perhaps the greatest collection of animation talent ever assembled, used his extraordinary skills as a storyteller to give them ideas, then spurred them on -- sometimes unpleasantly -- to accomplish artistic feats beyond their own imaginings. And he relentlessly put his own name on everything they did, so it was not surprising that Low or anyone else thought Disney himself did at least some of the drawing.

In this second edition of his mammoth accounting and analyses of Disney's animated characters (the first edition appeared in 1987), Mr. Grant readily acknowledges Disney's limitations as a draftsman and gives full, indeed copious credit at last to the hundreds of artists, technicians and voice talents who brought Disney's ideas stunningly to life.

As Roy Disney Jr., Walt's nephew, observes in the introduction to this hefty volume, "It has always been the people . . . [behind the art] who have made it all work." In this book, all of them are named, their contributions specifically itemized, and the characters upon which they worked dutifully identified.

Although this book is a thoroughly in-house project, put out by the Disney Studio's own publishing firm, Hyperion, Mr. Grant evidently was given freedom to criticize Disney efforts when he believed criticism was warranted.

He used the freedom judiciously, finding fault here and there but almost always softening the blow with careful "on-the-other-hand" temporizations. Occasionally he is uncompromisingly blunt: Disney's 1963 "Sword in the Stone" animated feature is "utterly forgettable," and "the critics were unanimous in their condemnation of 'Ducktales: The Movie'. . ."

Sometimes Mr. Grant overstates his case, claiming, for example, that Mickey Mouse was the first animated character "with a distinct personality, and it is precisely this that even today distinguishes Disney animated cartoons from the rest."

While Mickey certainly is a remarkable figure in the history of film, such a statement ignores Felix the Cat, who was an international star by 1923 on the strength of his engaging personality, and implies that Bugs Bunny -- a consistently more popular cartoon character than Mickey in public opinion polls -- is somehow a cipher.

These shortcomings aside, Mr. Grant provides lively descriptions vintage cartoon shorts and all 39 features the Disney Studio has produced, along with witty analyses of the characters in them from the great to the obscure.

After a shaky period following Disney's death in 1966, the studio's animation efforts now seem in able hands, well equipped to perpetuate the master's legacy in such blockbusters as "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin," the opening of which a few months ago prompted revision of this encyclopedia. New editions are certain to follow -- "this is a book that will never stop growing," Roy Jr. assures us. As fine a feast as this encyclopedia is for animation fans, that assertion probably is its best message.

Mr. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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