Talk to any aficionado of animated films today and the names Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter should be very familiar. As animators and filmmakers emerging from the powerful Disney/Pixar juggernaut, they have used their talents to build illustrious careers in the world of film. These titans of animation however, owe much of their success to the pioneering efforts of talents like Floyd Norman. This fact is brought to life with all the appropriate admiration and warmth in Floyd Norman: An Animated Life, a documentary by Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey.
As the title suggests, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life is an inside look at the life and work of Floyd Norman, from his early childhood years in Santa Barbara through his eventual decades long career at Disney. Upon his hiring in 1956, he was destined to stand out as the first African-American at Disney, in addition to his own prodigious skill in animation. He therefore became an asset to the company, enduring through the various tumultuous changes experienced at Disney Animation from the heyday of hand drawn animation to the current era of CGI. And as we learn about his journey, the audience realizes that this animator, storyteller and self-proclaimed troublemaker has played a huge part in our ongoing love affair with the Disney brand.
Indeed, Fiore and Sharkey easily garner our affection for the artist as they show his experiences with helping to create beloved classics like The Jungle Book (as screenwriter) and Toy Story 2 (as storyboard artist). But furthermore, his greater influence is highlighted further, as we learn of his involvement in creating targeted entertainment for the African-American community, by starting his own company to produce Black History films as well as animating pop culture benchmarks such as the Fat Albert Special and the opening titles to Soul Train.
Through the course of the film, the directors successfully convince the audience of Norman’s legendary status. And in this regard, they smartly bookend the film with the revelation that he was forced to retire at age 65 while still in his prime. Ageism thus becomes a hot topic within the film, thereby rejecting the typical “rags to riches”, triumph over racism stories so often associated with African-American icons (he grew up in a comfortable middle-class home). However, much of the underlying racism seems to be downplayed as an aesthetic choice, considering Norman’s own history with criticisms of the company and his explicit discontent that so many of his contemporaries went on to become producers, an opportunity he was never afforded.
But overall, the film is a celebratory affair, fittingly pepperred with animated excerpts to recreate key events in his life. And though the otherwise “talking heads” format feels less inventive than one might expect from a film about a man at the cutting edge of technology, the love expressed from his family, friends and colleagues is infectious. Floyd Norman: An Animitated Life is a heartwarming tribute to an underappreciated, unassuming man who broke boundaries and impacted many lives for the better.
Floyd Norman: An Animated Life opens in select theaters August 26, 2016.