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.”
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.
“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.
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 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.
Available: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix Instant, VUDU