Anthony Smith looks at how the Disney empire cashed in on its creations.
While Walt Disney lay dying in hospital in 1966, he became preoccupied with the pattern of tiles on the ceiling of his room, imagining them not as an animation layout but rather as the layout of his new Florida theme park.
By 1966, most of Disney's wealth was already in theme parks and no longer in cartoons. His company was already what we now call a multi-media enterprise, the minds of its executives concentrated on the spin-offs and diversifications of the core business. Television had already enabled Disney to repackage and reuse his library of more than 1,000 cartoon films, including several full-length feature films, and as TV was followed by cassettes, video, cable, satellite, even specialist cartoon channels, the company was able to license them out again and again.
The animal figures of the movie cartoons had long entered the cultural consciousness of a global audience, indelibly so by the 1960s (when this history concludes), and the iconic operations of the Disney company were taking place in toyshops, clothing outlets, restaurants, as well as the Disneyland theme parks and even in the live theatre. The release of The Lion King as a stage musical two years ago is expected to turn in $1 billion.
One must remember that the works of Disney, almost alone among the products of the moving-image industry, never become obsolete; by marshalling a meticulous and merciless army of copyright lawyers the company is able to continue milking its product, releasing and re-releasing the Mouse, the Duck and Snow White as fresh experiences for every new child and every new adult in the world. It is a product that never wears out.
Until 40 years ago, the cartoons were used as one ingredient in the popular neighbourhood cinema programme; they were seven or eight-minute fillers. They were produced in studios, with lines of people seated at desks making drawings in sequence, each employee expected to produce 25 feet of film a week. Old photographs of the animation studios seen today may call to mind the medieval scriptorium. But these days cartoon characters are designed by committees of skilled executives, who slowly revise the forms and behaviours of the creatures depicted, together with the sounds they utter, in the light of market research.
The images themselves can be produced by computers. To make a full-length animated film is no longer the epic feat it once was. Outside the ambience of Disney such films can nowadays even be made and distributed, in theory at least, without the interference of studio bureaucracy since the internet exists as a brand-new medium of dissemination free from corporate control. Moreover, the computer has eliminated the boundary between animation and live action, and it is becoming difficult to detect the difference between photographic images that have been manipulated by computers and drawings that have been made to adopt the movements of living creatures.
Needless to say, the cost of animations made (and coloured) by computer is vastly less than that of hand-painted individual celluloid drawings repeated with minute changes thousands of times. The cartoon has developed its own industrial system; to change the look of a standard character now entails the kind of decision-making and market testing normally invested in the redesign of an automobile tail fin. To create a new animal is as daring and as freighted with corporate implication as the launching of a new car model.
Michael Barrier's substantial volume is something of a disappointment, despite the 30 years of recorded interviewing with animation workers and executives that have gone into the making of it. The core problem is that the reader is led to expect by the title alone something much broader than even these 650 pages provide. The title suggests a full-scale cultural history, but the book instead provides an interesting insider's account of the evolution of the Disney company and its principal personalities, a business or trade history that omits an account of the reception and influence of this enormously important element in contemporary popular culture.
Moreover, the book seems to have come into existence within a social and cultural vacuum: the cartoons are simply what Disney did and his heirs do. There is little political or economic context. The simultaneous traditions of cartoon and animation work that were being established throughout Europe go unmentioned. Little is said about other American animation film, although space is given to Disney's "rivals".
But what of animation that did not set out to rival or supplant Disney? Is there, was there ever, any line of other influence upon which Disney drew? What was the nature of the appeal of the cartoon animal to children in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s? Why was it that Disney, rather than MGM or Warner Bros, maintained dominance of the cartoon market for so many decades? The governing convention of the cartoon meant that the films could be extremely violent without children, apparently, being much frightened by them, as if cartoon characters are immune to pain and death - well, how did that come about and what have Disney people thought about this issue over the past 70 years?
Allusion to such issues is scant and it is difficult, therefore, to use the book as a general history of the phenomenon of the cartoon.
Where the book is most useful is in its detailed accounts of the evolution of the drawings and also the sounds. For example, the extreme distortions of the body that animators practised until the early 1930s tended to deprive the viewer of a sense of the reality of the creature depicted. But some of the later 1930s animators, including those at Warner Bros, pursued a different theory of draughtsmanship, in which distortion was employed only to register the emotions of the character - bodies could writhe with tremendous intensity but only to register the sequence of mental states through which the plot was forcing them. To take another example, the introduction of Donald Duck in 1934 was marked by the advent of a distinctive animal personality voice, one that sounded the way an animal's voice should sound, with realistic locutions of a duck shaped into intelligible words. Barrier is extremely good at providing in great and compelling detail this kind of material.
As the animation skills and styles evolved, leading animators had the opportunity to become, as it were, stars in their own right, even to the point that some were thrown out of their jobs in early 1950 when the House Un-American Activities Committee, swept Hollywood in its search for communists. Career and employment information of this kind, which Barrier has collected from surviving practitioners, is very valuable and will not be able to be done again; it provides this book with its raison d'être . It is a pity that the volume is so exiguously provided with illustration; it offers four corner-flip pictures, but there is no colour in the few photographs and other illustrations provided.
Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.
Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age
Author - Michael Barrier
ISBN - 0 19 503759 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 648