Floyd Norman: An Animated Life
(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Michael Fiore, Erik Sharkey
Floyd Norman, the first African American to come aboard the team at Walt Disney Studios, is a pioneer and a trailblazer. He’s also one of the unsung heroes of the industry, which makes the profile doc An Animated Life doubly relevant when it reminds audiences to consider the great number of hands that go into making films they hold dear. His prolific body of work deserves a portrait as upbeat and insightful as this one is.
Artists like Floyd Norman tend to be overlooked, since they work behind the scenes and play crucial, yet invisible, supporting roles that hold a film together. Norman recounts his experience in the film industry in amiable and easygoing interviews that illuminate the amount of work that goes into the smallest details of an animated film. He explains his early career relishing the opportunity to fill in shading or trace black lines of comics and Disney films. Better yet, he sits down at his easel and shows directors Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey how it’s done. The passion, speed, and skill with which Norman cranks out professional drawings illustrate the hand of an artist.
Norman relates how pure passion and artistry got him through the doors of Disney Studios. His story challenges narratives percolating in popular culture that paint Walt Disney as a sexist and a racist, although he doesn’t counter claims that Disney was a flawed man. One sequence in the film sees Norman and his wife, Adrienne, recount his passionate defense of Disney after Meryl Streep blasted him during an award season speech. Race appears as a tenuous subject in An Animated Life as archival footage show talk show host upon talk show host asks Norman to identify his experience as a Black animator, whereas Norman consistently responds that, like many kids, he grew up loving cartoons regardless of the lens through which he saw them. Despite being the lone Black man at Disney studios, whom many of the talking heads in the film describe as a mythical character everybody heard about but never saw, the animator insists that Disney was a colorblind employer.
The years of the Civil Rights movement changed things, however, and Norman recalls going down south and taking his Bolex camera into the thick of the riots where he witnessed another side of America that the Disney magic often omits. After being fired from Disney during Robin Hood, Norman relates his effort to create an independent animation house with fellow African-Americans. The doc tells of a few successful years, but one can only survive so long in the business against a monolith like Disney.
Norman tells how he returned to Disney and became a force, only to receive a cold dismissal from his position when he turned 65. Ageism is Hollywood’s battleground, one of many, and the doc is quite pointed in recognising the film industry’s tendency to neglect its veterans.
The doc shows that the young-at-heart Norman isn’t forgotten by his protégés, since the directors pepper the film with animated sequences by a new generation of animators. Jovial cartoons and sketches illustrate the life of the animator in all his quirky and offbeat shades. They convey his influence on the film industry and pay tribute to the man who made some of the films that inspired future animators. Similarly, the range of talking heads, which includes names like actress Whoopi Goldberg, film critic Leonard Maltin, and How to Train Your Dragon director Dean DeBlois, add to the sense of Norman’s legacy and character.
An Animated Life serves as a warm portrait of the Disney legacy too, since Norman, Starbucks coffee in hand, takes the filmmakers on a tour of the animation studio. He shares bits of Disney lore and illuminates the process of crafting a film through storyboards, sketches, and songs. The film looks behind the curtain of Disney magic and this insider’s glimpse into classic films such as The Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians is an invaluable study of Hollywood lore, particularly because it tells history from the perspective of its most passionate players and not the stars who receive a disproportionate share of the credit. An honorary Oscar might be a worthy sequel.
Floyd Norman: An Animated Life screens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema’s Doc Soup Sunday on Feb. 19.