- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2016


“Floyd Norman: An Animated Life,” produced by Michael Fiore Films, from filmmakers Erik Sharkey (“Drew: The Man Behind the Poster”) and Michael Fiore — premiering at Santa Barbara International Film Festival this weekend — follows the legendary Disney animator, who was forced out of the Mouse House as he aged, only to be brought back into the bowels of the cartoon empire due to his seniority, having studied under the tutelage of Disney’s old guard, but now finding himself as the “old-timer” in an industry that has largely turned away from hand-drawn animation in favor of pixels.

Raised in Santa Barbara, the rich-voiced Mr. Norman, now 80, comes across as not so much a tortured artist but more a figure who relates to the world and his fellow man through art rather than conversation (his adult children are frequently seen smilingly bemoaning his emotional distance). Perhaps his estrangement, the film argues, has to do with its subject’s having been fortuitously raised in California and not in the South, where other black men of his generation were subjected to such state-sanctioned indignities as segregated water fountains — or worse.

There were “rumors of one black person working at Disney,” Whoopi Goldberg opines at one point in the doc, and thus Mr. Norman is granted an almost-mythical quality that, though perhaps deserved for his talent and his being a social anomaly in a white-dominated field, could be argued has far less to do with his skin color than the sheer force of his artistry and perseverance. (At several points in the doc, Mr. Norman says it never occurred to him to self-identify as a “black artist.”)

“Floyd is an important part of animation and cultural history,” Mr. Sharkey told The Washington Times of the first African-American artist to work for Disney. “He has been a part of every wave of animation since the 1950s.”

Mr. Sharkey and Mr. Fiore detail how Mr. Norman’s arc took him from the Disney cradle (he himself had ol’ Walt’s ear) into producing educational pieces aimed at black audiences, including working with Hanna-Barbera, on “Soul Train” and on Bill Cosby’s early iterations for the Fat Albert series, before chance encounters eventually led to his collaborating with Steve Jobs and Pixar on the original “Toy Story.”

“He largely avoided racism for most of his life, but now, in 21st century corporate America, he has found himself dealing with another scourge: ageism,” Mr. Fiore — producer of the upcoming Sony Screen Gems film “Keep Watching,” starring Bella Thorne — said. “This is something everyone will have to contend with at some point in their life. I hope that Floyd can become a face and a voice in the battle against ageism in the corporate arts.”

Mr. Sharkey excels at these behind-the-tinsel exposes — as he proved in his admirably pulling movie poster artist Drew Struzan from behind the canvas and into the limelight in his previous doc — shedding illumination on chapters of Hollywood history heretofore unknown to the general public or even well-informed cineastes (this reviewer included). And at a time when a wing of Hollywood heavyweights threatens (perhaps not unjustifiably) to boycott the Oscars over yet another dearth of minority nominees, “An Animated Life” proves timely: There are stories of minority creatives out there, but, sadly — as with Mr. Floyd’s being turned away from Disney the day he turned 65 — they must be unearthed rather than simply existing out in the open.

In that way, “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life,” proves to be a rather noble cinematic endeavor.

“Floyd has had a truly amazing career and life, and we really wanted to document and share his story in our film,” Mr. Sharkey said.

The film screens again Sunday morning at 10:20 at Fiesta 2.

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