INDIEWATCH: Documentary Follows Disney’s First Black Animator

Documentaries these days offer something for everyone. If you’re into skateboarding, wine or standup comedy, there’s a film for you. This reviewer grew up on Disney movies, so interest was piqued to see the synopsis for “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life.” This film tracks the artist’s journey from being the first black animator at Disney to working Walt Disney himself to getting fired from the studio on his 65th birthday.

But that doesn’t stop Norman from light-heartedly walking around Disney’s animation studios, “Floydering,” as his wife calls it, and giving tips to current employees. “I don’t see a 79-year-old man, I see a kid who loves cartoons,” said Paul Dini, writer and producer of “Batman: The Animated Series.”

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In his 80s, Norman is still active in the field. netflix.com

And “An Animated Life” shows big-kid Norman as smiley and hipster-ishly clad in a fedora, dark-rimmed glasses and animation T-shirts. During a birthday celebration, Scarlett Johansson sings happy birthday to Norman in a loose Marilyn Monroe impersonation. He’s surrounded by a filled room of colleagues, friends and family, and the adoration is heavy.

Directors Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey are quick to establish: here’s a living legend, and “An Animated Life” traces his Santa Barbara, Calif., roots to working for Mickey Mouse’s dad. “I wasn’t even aware that I was an African American, I was another artist looking for a job,” Norman says of his early years in the biz.

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Floyd Norman worked as an inbetweener on “Sleeping Beauty” in 1956. “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life” looks at his career. He was the first black animator to work at Disney. netflix.com

“An Animated Life” highlights his career at Hanna-Barbera Productions (“I don’t know how many Scoobys I did. Hate that dog,” he says); starting his own film company; and drawing a Mickey Mouse comic book, among many other things.

Some pros: Norman and friends discuss refining “Trust in Me (The Python’s Song)” from 1967’s “The Jungle Book”; Norman shares about civil rights rioters waiting for him to reload film; insider stories about Walt Disney’s demeanor.

A film pro: Norman describes trying to impress Walt Disney himself. netflix.com
A film pro: Norman describes trying to impress Walt Disney himself. netflix.com

Some cons: “An Animated Life” dusts over seemingly tense events in his life to the point that it feels, well, Disney-ed.

In one scene, charming curmudgeon music plays as Norman and others hint at racism and sexism in the business. This doesn’t fit or seem to do justice to topics that still exist today. It feels like a missed opportunity to illuminate conditions.

In another scene that’s mostly animated, this film mentions Norman serving in the U.S. military. 

“I was able to get through this traumatic experience by drawing cartoons,” he said. “You use whatever you have to survive.” Something about the juxtaposition of his smiley animated character using his thumbs and forefingers to create a pretend video camera feels unsettling and surface.

Norman and Mickey. Friends 4eva.

Norman and Mickey. Friends 4eva.

Norman appears to be a hard egg to crack. There’s a wealth of emotion brewing that this film doesn’t quite seem to access from the source. And because of that, even as a Disney lover, “An Animated Life” lacked an emotional depth and therefore a real investment for this reviewer. A saving grace is interviews with Norman’s wife Adrienne and his colleagues, which best paint the picture of the living legend. And yet, still after 90 minutes, one wonders if what’s shown is the real Norman or just a sketch of him.

“He expresses himself with his pen,” said Leo Sullivan, his former business partner. And “An Animated Life” offers a lot of Norman’s work for consumption. If you’re interested, it’s worth a watch.

Grade: C-

Available: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix Instant, VUDU

Time: 1:34

Rating: TV-PG

4 Responses

  1. Janet Wilson

    I found your review to be wildly inconsistent to warrant what feels like an arbitrary C- grade. Your review appears to like the movie more than dislike. Yet you gave this wonderful movie a less than average grade. Your slipshod review of what us an excellent movie should not be taken seriously by anyone that reads it I’ve seen the movie, and I’ve met Mr. Norman, and this documentary paints a perfect tone poem of who he is. I disagree with your review and rating. It’s an “A” for any fan of animation history and is executed beautifully with great detail.

  2. I agree with Janet. I didn’t read any justification for a “less-than-average” rating. My mother’s cousin was a disney artist during that era and i was looking forward to seeing this glimpse into that world. A C- rating might have been a deterant, on face value, but your review, and Janet’s comment encourage me to watch it… Maybe I’ll post a follow-up!

  3. Gee Boon

    THIS REVIEWER COULDN’T BE MORE INCORRECT. THIS MOVIE IS AMAZING!!! A MUST SEE FOR ANYONE (NOT JUST ANIMATION ENTHUSIASTS).

    I just watched the movie on NETFLIX with my family. Melinda Lavine’s review above does not paint an accurate picture of how wonderful this movie is.

    Ms. Melinda — Did you watch the same movie that I just watched with my three grand children? I agree with the comment above above that your “C-” grade is not appropriate for what this movie is. This is an absolute “A” in every way.

    It’s funny, heartwarming, and highly educational. My grandkids and I actually came away knowing how the animation process is performed! I did not expect that when I turned this movie on. There are so many layers to this movie — it’s actually pretty amazing. There’s a lot here, and yet, I could digest it all and felt so satisfied.

    I must say, a review like yours is very dangerous to independent cinema and the promotion of a positive Black story like FLOYD NORMAN’s. You appear to be a Black woman, based on your photograph above. On some level, I say shame on you for giving a grade that as Bill said above is “a deterrent”.

    In a world where we need more positive stories about Black culture, your “C-” grade may keep people from watching and promoting what is a very IMPORTANT movie and story.

    TO ANYONE READING THIS…THIS MOVIE IS A MUST WATCH. I felt this way, as well as my three grandkids ranging in age from 8-14.

    I looked up other reviews on ROTTEN TOMATOES, out of curiosity, and this movie has a 92% fresh rating from top critics. They gush about how good this movie is. AND I AGREE!

    On some level, I needed to write this comment (which I never do) because I was so effected by this story and feel that everyone (not just animation fans) should be watching this and sharing this movie.

    I feel it is important for me to counter Ms. Melinda’s inappropriate “C-” grade so that no one is deterred to see this. TRUST ME. You will love this movie.

    I think when you review a movie, Ms. Melinda, you need to consider the importance of a movie in how the narrative positively impacts a culture, before you decide to rate it with a sub par grade like a “C-” that will deter people.

  4. I hope my words speak louder than my rating, and my words do speak highly of this film’s content. Despite my rating, I include encouragement for viewers to watch this if interested.

    I stand by my experience viewing this film, which is personal, as is your experience viewing it and even reading this review. By that, too, I stand by what I wrote.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with me. I read and considered what you’ve all shared, and I sincerely value the feedback. Thank you for reading.

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