The History of Animation
by Charles Solomon; Alfred A. Knopf; 336 pages.
Charles Solomon knows about animation. His definitive history of the art 154 form, Enchanted Drawings , traces its development from the traveling magiclantern shows of seventeenth-century Europe to 1988’s cartoon-and-live-action smash Who Framed Roger Rabbit . Solomon explains animation technology in clear prose and harbors a remarkable command of animation minutiae (for example, that the Smurfs were adapted from a popular Belgian comic strip known as “The Whatchamacallits”). His sly analyses of cartoon content make this illustrated volume more than just a marvelous picture book. On Popeye and Bluto’s admiration for Olive OyI, for instance, he explains: “It was never clear just what the two men saw in their skinny, often capricious inamorata: their devotion to her has to be taken as a given.”
Much of the book is devoted to dissecting the career of the unquestionable king of animation, Walt Disney. Solomon documents the watershed Mickey Mouse sound cartoon Steamboat Willie (1928), the artistically exquisite and financially phenomenal Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the brilliant Fantasia (1940). Still, Disney emerges as a troubled, complicated man: “Walt almost seems to have been a human Rorschach test: everyone who worked with him saw something different.” And Solomon’s full-blown portrait of Disney eradicates a longstanding myth—he was cremated upon his death in 1966, not frozen, as many believe.
The author writes with tangible affection for animation, but Enchanted Drawings is also rich with tales of the medium’s wrong turns and failures. He assails the racist stereotypes of cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s and is particularly incensed by the poor quality of much of today’s animation, calling the cartoons of Saturday-morning television “a vast landfill.” Other low points are more comically described: Solomon devotes an entire chapter to cartoon training films of World War II, animated shorts often narrated by Ronald Reagan with titles like Malaria Mike , Four Methods of Flush Riveting , and How to Get a Fat Jap Out of a Cave . And everyone who has ever wondered why Nancy and Sluggo continue to inhabit the newspapers will be grateful for his brief but searing dismissal of a 1942 adaptation of Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip: “As ‘Nancy’ had never been funny in the newspapers, there was no reason to expect it to be funny on the screen, and it wasn’t.”