Two buddies turned a doorknob into a star

August 18, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach

Thankfully, the legacy of Disney's Nine Old Men is not yet relegated strictly to the history books. The two most influential of the famed animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, are still very much alive and living in Southern California. Their landmark animation work, in addition to their seven-decade friendship, is affectionately chronicled by Thomas' son, Theodore Thomas, in his invaluable 1995 documentary, Frank and Ollie (available on VHS from Amazon.com for $19.99).

The 90-minute film, which aired originally on cable's Disney Channel, celebrates the pair as both artists and friends, and makes a compelling case that they should be admired equally as both. From 1931, when they met while art students at Stanford, the pair have been both professionally and personally inseparable (living as neighbors, they obviously delight in each other's company, and frequently finish each other's sentences).

It's easy to talk about Thomas and Johnston's gifts for animation, as well as the way they helped change the art form, and Frank and Ollie has plenty of modern-day Disney animators doing just that. But it also features dozens of film clips -- from 1937's Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs to 1977's The Rescuers -- that show just what they did. Even better, dozens of storyboards, preliminary sketches and production cels (few studios have been better at preserving its archives than Disney) show just how magical their work was.

It's also fascinating to see just how much of the animators themselves went into their work. Thomas and Johnston are both talented actors, and one of the documentary's most overpowering joys is watching them act out the movements they would later give their animated creations.

I always suspected it must have been harder to turn a doorknob into a film character (as happened in Alice In Wonderland) than it looked. Frank and Ollie confirms that suspicion, and proves that only groundbreaking artists like Frank and Ollie could have done it so well.

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