The death of veteran Disney animator Ward Kimball in early July brought the phrase "Nine Old Men" back into the public eye. The Nine, the men who helped make Disney and defined the house style of Mouse House animation, changed animated films forever. And with each one's passing, we remember again just how special these guys were.
Walt Disney affectionately dubbed them "Nine Old Men," borrowing from Franklin D. Roosevelt's gripe about the U.S. Supreme Court, "nine old men, all too aged to recognize a new idea." Kimball, Eric Larson, Les Clark, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery and Marc Davis were loyal, committed, lifelong Disney employees, men who had a hand in creating cartoons, TV shows and theme park attractions.
And their influence is still felt, even today. The new Disney movie The Country Bears? It's based on characters originally designed by Davis and approved by Walt himself, 35 years ago.
That's why we need to remember them, says John Canemaker, author of the definitive book on the Nine, Walt Disney's Nine Old Men & The Art of Animation (Disney Editions).
"They were the heart and soul of Disney animation, in a very permanent way," Canemaker says. "They pioneered 'sincere' animation, animation geared toward grabbing you emotionally, making you believe in the character."
Kimball left a legacy that included such immortal characters as Jiminy Cricket, the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland and the hard-partying Bacchus from Fantasia. Only Thomas and Johnston, two lifelong friends who became lifelong colleagues at Disney and the subject of the 1995 documentary Frank & Ollie, survive.
"Frank Thomas really invented 'sincere' animation with that one scene, where the dwarves are grieving around Snow White's bier in Snow White," Canemaker says.
The Nine weren't the only ones responsible for the look that made Disney famous. Other names flitter through Canemak-er's book and other accounts of the early history of the studio: T. Hee, Ub Iwerks, Vladimir Tytla, Fred Moore. But they weren't Disney-trained. Most of them came to the studio already seasoned, and then went elsewhere, hired guns. A couple didn't cross the picket lines when Disney was unionized in a 1941 strike.
But the Nine did cross those lines and were rewarded with lifelong employment with Disney, and by being lionized in the annals of the studio's history. They became legends in the world of animation.
Important line of films
But cut through the studio hype and the Nine are still important. It's amazing how much of Disney's reputation, Disney's "Disney-ness," stems from the four movies that followed 1938's Snow White: Pinocchio and Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). This quartet of films put a stamp on the company's animation brand -- emotionally mature cartoon "acting" by adorably drawn adults, kids, critters and wooden puppets.
The Nine left their imprint on every movie that followed, from The Three Caballeros (1945) through The Rescuers (1977). It's no accident that Disney's long, lean years in animation came as the last of the Nine retired. Disney's commitment to animation waned as they left, prompting many animators they trained to also leave. It took more than a decade for the studio to recover from that double whammy, when younger animators schooled by the Nine came of age and were put to work on a great story with great songs, 1989's The Little Mermaid.
When Disney wants to pump up a new animated project, it invokes something made by the Nine Old Men. Lilo & Stitch? "It's a new Dumbo." When the animators for Lilo wanted to know whether they were on the right track with their watercolor backgrounds, they visited veterans of the studio from that era.
Legions of the senior animators making today's great cartoons learned at the feet of these guys, especially Thomas and Johnston.
Don Bluth, who eventually left Disney to try his hand at making films for himself (The Secret of NIMH) and other studios (An American Tale, Titan A.E.), was one apprentice.
Master animators Glen Keane (Tarzan) and Andreas Deja (Lilo & Stitch) studied under various members of the Old Men.
Toy Story director John Lasseter apprenticed under Thomas and Johnston. Iron Giant director Brad Bird made sure his heroes, Frank and Ollie, were caricatured in his film.
John Pomeroy left the studio, became a director and eventually returned to Disney, doing main characters for films such as Pocahontas and Atlantis. He says his reasons for going back had to do with "wanting to create one character as memorable, as emotionally well-acted" as the best of Thomas and Johnston.
The Country Bears is based on an attraction designed by Davis in 1966 for the planned Walt Disney World theme park. On one of his last visits to the Burbank studio, Disney met with Davis and laughed "hysterically" at those bears, Davis told Canemaker.
Walt was mere days from death then, but he still was leaning on his brain trust, the nine guys who stuck with him and left their imprint on so much that even today has the Disney name on it.
The Disney brand lives on. But its fame is built not just on the back of one brilliant entrepreneur, but on the works of the people he was smart enough to hire, inspire and keep through the long decades it took to build his entertainment empire.
Roger Moore is a reporter for The Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.