Legendary Disney animator Floyd Norman—one of the company’s first African-American artists—is touted as three things in the advertising for Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey’s new documentary Floyd Norman: An Animated Life.
The first is “animator.” Obvious enough: after a childhood of obsessive doodling and an adolescence working as an inker and letterer for Bill Woggon’s comic series Katy Keene, he joined Disney in 1956 as an in-between artist on Sleeping Beauty (1959). After being drafted into the Army, he returned to help animate One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and The Sword in the Stone (1963). After a brief stint at Hanna-Barbera (“I worked on Scooby-Doo. I hated that dog.”) he returned again to Disney and eventually joined Pixar in the late 90s.
The second is “storyman.” Again, obvious enough: he was assigned as storyboard artist during Disney’s production of The Jungle Book (1967). Forced to present original ideas and storyboards to Walt Disney himself, he became a member of the company’s upper creative echelon.
But the last thing the film advertises Floyd Norman as is “troublemaker.” Here is where my incredulity kicks in. The film depicts Norman as the opposite of a troublemaker. Though long retired from Disney, he still goes to the studio every day to chat and encourage the employees. Every interviewee—from his wife and family to Whoopi Goldberg to Paul Dini to Leonard Maltin—describes him as one of the nicest, most non-confrontational people they’ve ever known. One even describes him as ““the Forrest Gump of animation.”
Norman’s big claim to “troublemaker” fame was his habit of posting little cartoons around the Disney offices lampooning unscrupulous business executives and industry moneymen. Otherwise the film creates a portrait of an extreme introvert, a man so uncomfortable with outward displays of aggression or emotion that he relied on leaving passive-aggressive magazine articles around the house whenever his children misbehaved growing up.
There was a period after Walt’s death when he left Disney to co-found Vignette Films, Inc., a company which produced animated and live-action films addressing African-American history and culture. But despite this work Norman seems nonplussed with his contributions as an African-American. He recounts in an interview that when he first applied to Disney, he “wasn’t even aware that I was an African-American. I was just another artist looking for a job.” The major controversy in his life doesn’t seem to be his race, but the role ageism may have played in his involuntary retirement from Disney when he turned 65. I have no doubt that Norman faced great adversity, but the film never gives the great struggles in his life more than cursory glances. His traumatic combat service in the Army and his divorce from his beloved first wife barely receive a minute’s worth of discussion each. The film seems more interested in getting the audience to love Norman than in actually telling his story. There are lovely animated interludes of Norman running around the Disney offices and interacting with Walt that were done by “up-and-coming artists.” And there are many scenes of Norman being embraced and toasted at industry lunches, conventions, and Disney studios gatherings. But I felt like I was learning about the legend of Floyd Norman, not the man himself.