“It was cool to be in that room with Walt — as long as he didn’t spot you.” That’s Floyd Norman, longtime animator and storyteller at Disney, Pixar, Hanna-Barbera, and several fascinating endeavors of his own. (With a partner, he knocked out the cartoon intro to Soul Train in a weekend.) But he understands that everyone wants to ask about Walt Disney himself. “I thought he was always gonna ask me, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” Norman says. That sounds tough, but Norman is as warm as he is frank in his characterization of his onetime boss. What Walt cared about in an employee, Norman says, was what he or she could do for Walt, and that’s part of why Norman doesn’t make too big a deal about being the first African-American Disney animator — he was hired for his talent. And, in fact, when Walt was in the room, Norman did great, like the time he presented his and Vance Gerry’s storyboards for the dazzling Jungle Book sequence of the snake, Kaa, hypnotizing Mowgli. “Walt said, ‘Yeah, that’ll work,’ ” says Richard Sherman, of the Sherman Brothers songwriting team.
Norman’s life is too packed for this sunny, sympathetic doc to do it justice. (His summation of the day Hanna-Barbera asked him to come up with stories? “Hey, I can write this crap, too!” Almost as funny: “I don’t know how many Scoobys I did — I hate that dog.”) Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey’s film is most revealing and involving when Norman, now 80, talks and sketches, his pen and mind both lively. Too much time is spent on recent footage of Norman parading about Disney offices being cheered and toasted. We get a too-brief look at one of the Quick Draw panels Mark Evanier hosts at Comic-Con, where artists like Norman and the great Sergio Aragones whip up priceless cartoons before admiring audiences. (Can we get a doc portrait of those events, please — or of Aragones at work?)
But nothing is more involving here than when Norman and his contemporary Leo Sullivan, another black animation lifer, sit back to joke, reminisce, and discuss the curious business of being pioneers. Sullivan seems convinced that Disney’s recent lionizing of Norman has something to do with wanting to look progressive, while Norman himself is thrilled to be invited back so often — most recently, he storyboarded for a home-video release a segment cut from the original 101 Dalmatians. His career has spanned from Sleeping Beauty to digital animation and then on to today’s nostalgia for the old stuff. Maybe in fifteen years, he’ll be able to show the holo-animators of 2030 how Walt used to do it.
Floyd Norman: An Animated Life
Directed by Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey
Opens August 26, Village East
Available on demand