'Floyd Norman: An Animated Life': Film Review

Courtesy of Michael Fiore Films
Animation buffs will eat it up.
8/26/2016

This affectionate documentary profiles the life and career of Disney's first African-American animator.

His name will be familiar to only the most ardent animation buffs, but Floyd Norman has been an instrumental figure at Disney and other companies for over half a century. Worthy of the description expressed by one interviewee as "the Forrest Gump of animation," the animator legendary among his colleagues is profiled in Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey's celebratory documentary, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life.

Norman, who spent his childhood years in Santa Barbara, became the first African-American artist employed by Disney when he was hired in 1956. He worked on such classics as Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, with his career briefly interrupted when he was drafted during the Korean War (he didn't see combat).

Norman began working directly with Walt Disney after being promoted to a writer's position on The Jungle Book. Although he recalls his former boss with affection, Norman also makes it clear that he found him more than a little intimidating.

"It was cool to be in that room with Walt … if he didn't spot you," the now 81-year-old animator recalls.

After Walt died, Norman left Disney and, along with several colleagues, founded Vignette Films, specializing in animated and live-action educational films about the African-American experience. When the company folded, he briefly returned to Disney before becoming a writer/animator at Hanna-Barbera, where he worked on dozens of television shows, including Scooby-Doo. "I don't know how many Scoobys I did," he comments. "I hate that dog." Other stints included Disney Publishing, where he wrote Mickey Mouse comic books, and Pixar, where he worked on such films as Toy Story 2.

Despite his distinguished career at Disney, Norman was forced into retirement upon turning 65. As he makes clear, his bitterness over the perfunctory dismissal has not dissipated with time. Nonetheless, he remains a viable presence at the company; for the last 16 years, he's spent many days hanging out at Disney Publishing, where his wife works, enjoying the role of esteemed elder statesman.

"He walks around the campus like he's Bob Iger or something," she comments, adding that the term she's coined for what he does there is "Floydering."

Besides extensive commentary by the youthfully vibrant Norman, the film features effusive testimonials by many of his colleagues and friends, including Whoopi Goldberg, Leonard Maltin and such animation veterans as Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon), Gary Trousdale (Beauty and the Beast) and Mary Poppins composer Richard M. Sherman.

Diffuse and rambling at times, An Animated Life, which sometimes has the feel of a tribute film shown at an award gala, is not as compelling as such similarly themed docs as Waking Sleeping Beauty and Frank and Ollie. Nonetheless, it serves as an entertaining salute to an unsung figure whose considerable accomplishments well deserve recognition.   

Distributor: FilmBuff
Production company: Michael Fiore Films
Directors: Erik Sharkey, Michael Fiore
Producer-director of animation and photography-editor: Michael Fiore
Composer: Ryan Shore

Not rated, 94 minutes

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