Review: ‘Floyd Norman: An Animated Life’
By Craig Barton (@disnerdcraig)
Floyd Norman may have been the first African-American animator at Walt Disney Productions in 1956, but breaking a cultural milestone wasn’t what was first and foremost on his mind. “People have often asked me, ‘How did it feel being the first African-American at Disney?’ Well, I wasn’t even aware that I was an African-American. I was another artist looking for a job.” The significance of his position is not, however, lost on Floyd. In numerous interviews, he has often been asked what it was like working for Walt Disney, repeatedly shooting down persistent rumors that Walt was racist. During in a discussion in 2010 at Atlantis Fantasyworld in Santa Cruz, CA Floyd addressed that rumor quite bluntly. “Walt didn’t really care who or what you were. He cared about your talent and your ability.”
In the documentary Floyd Norman: And Animated Life (Michael Fiore Films, 2016), we get to see the talent, ability, and man that Floyd himself is. Directed by Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey, An Animated Life tells the story of Disney Legend (2007) Floyd Norman, through interviews with peers, fans, friends, family, and Floyd himself. Aided with archival footage and interviews, along with new animations from “up-and-comers” in the industry, the viewer learns about a hardworking and talented individual whose achievements span far beyond that of a career in Disney animation.
I was pleasantly surprised and amazed upon viewing this film to realize exactly how much Floyd has accomplished throughout his long career. Through following on social media and his personal blog, “MrFun’s Journal,” ( http://floydnormancom.squarespace.com), I knew that outside of Disney, Floyd had worked for animation studios such as Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears (If you’re a child of Saturday-morning cartoons in the 70’s and 80’s, chances are you’ve seen Floyd’s handiwork in those shows!). What I was less aware of, were his days in his own company, Vignette Films (co-founded with fellow animator Leo Sullivan), started when Floyd left Disney after Walt’s untimely passing in 1966. Floyd and Leo used Vignette to make educational films on black history. A year earlier, Floyd and Leo took a camera (one used for Disney’s True Life Adventures) into the heart of the Watts area of Los Angeles and shot footage of the Watts Riots, footage that eventually went national through NBC news. Disney animation director Gary Trousdale (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) refers to Floyd as the “Forrest Gump of animation.” Not because of his IQ – Floyd is an incredibly intelligent human being – but because of the enormous presence Floyd has held in the world of animation through the years. After seeing this documentary, I can certainly see why.
In addition to his life and illustrious career, An Animated Life also takes a look at Floyd’s forced retirement at age 65. After returning to the Walt Disney Studios and working as hard as ever on movies such as Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., Floyd was told by the studio that it was time to retire. This movie pulls no punches on the subject of ageism and how it affected Floyd. We’re looking at a man who is driven, loves what he does, and plans to never retire. All of a sudden, he’s told, “You have to retire.” Fortunately for Floyd, and for us, the story doesn’t end there. Married to Adrienne Brown-Norman, who works for Disney Publishing, Floyd continued to show up at the studio with her, visiting others, offering advice, and doing commissioned drawings for fans worldwide – or as he refers to it himself, “Floydering.” After watching An Animated Life, following his blog and social media posts, and personally meeting him in 2015 at the Disney D23 Expo, I am convinced Disney and its fans are better off for said “Floydering.”
There is so much more to Floyd, his life, and career that I feel I haven’t touched on (including his reputation of “troublemaker,” as he has never been shy about voicing his opinion, even if it’s of the company he’s worked for). However, one does not review a movie and not leave content for the viewers to discover themselves. This is especially the case with Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. I would definitely recommend for any DisNerd, fan of animation, or anyone interested in the accomplished life of an extraordinary man.
Floyd Norman: An Animated Life is available for purchase on Blu-Ray, streaming through Netflix, and digital purchase through Amazon and iTunes.