Back in animation's hay day at Walt Disney Animation, big boss, Michael Eisner proposed this interesting question. "Would it be possible to produce an animated feature that would cost less than a hundred million dollars?" At the time the current crop of Disney films in production were going through the roof. The veterans in the group, like myself, said, "Of course it would be possible." We knew that would never happen unless the production was free of encroaching management. If the ever present creative executives were allowed to fuss over a film the cost of the production would eventually soar. Michael Eisner never got his "budget feature" from animation but his direct-to-video units began cranking out sequels and prequels to the existing Disney library. Of course they were doing it all on a shoestring when compared to what the big ticket features were costing. The head mouse had suddenly found a new revenue stream and things were never the same.

Some years later, I found myself wandering the halls of the Frank G. Wells Building on the Walt Disney studio lot where I had just dropped off a story board assignment. Ironically, it was on one of the many sequels Disney had in production. Since I had a few hours to spare, I thought I would stroll through the building to see what else was going on. For those of you not familiar with this relatively new structure on the Disney lot, it was then the home of Disney television, and direct-to-video development. There were many projects in development, but none of them merited more than a passing glance. Eventually, I made my way to the second floor of the building where I was suddenly surprised to find a group of old friends and colleagues working away on a project that was so intriguing I knew I wouldn't be able to stay away. The film in progress was "The Three Musketeers," starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. In a era of warmed over sequels and prequels, this little movie was a breath of fresh air.

Before I go any further, let's zip back to the early eighties when I made my unexpected return to the Disney studio as a writer in the comic strip department. I remember more than one project that featured the classic Disney characters taking on the roles of historic or literary characters.  Usually these special stories were written for the comic book department. A couple of these ideas were moved over to animation where young Disney story tellers were busily adapting the stories for film. These projects appeared to be the perfect vehicle for Mickey, Donald and Goofy. I can't remember every idea in development at the time but one was called "Mickey Columbus" and the other was a retelling of the Dumas story of "The Three Musketeers." Remember, this was pre Eisner and Wells, and the Disney studio was soon in for a major upheaval. The clever ideas, along with many others would be put on the back burner, or worse - completely forgotten.

Yet, here we were in 2002, and the Mickey project that I never thought would see the light of day was finally in development. Better yet, the studio had assembled a crew worthy of such a project. A unique group of creatives with a full understanding of the Disney characters and how to use them. They were knowledgeable concerning shorts of the forties, and fifties. These guys in my opinion, were the dream team of cartoon story and I had worked with most of them over the years. Chris Otsuki, Kirk Hanson, Bob Taylor, Daan Jippes, Ken Mitchroney, Don Dougherty and Bob McNight were busily crafting this Disney epic the old fashion way. They understood how the characters had evolved over time, and how they related to each other. I had little doubt this show would be great.

I continued to work in development on other projects in the Wells Building but I couldn't stay away from the "Mickey" project. The youthful director, Donavan Cook eventually got use to seeing me hanging around and soon I began sitting in on story pitches and watching over the shoulder as art direction and styling on the movie progressed. I was so impressed I knew this little film was deserving of more than a direct-to-video release. In many ways it reminded me of something that had happened back in 1997 when I began work on a direct-to-video sequel called, "Toy Story2." This was another movie that many of us felt was worthy of a theatrical release. I continually made a nuisance of myself by bugging our Disney executive, Jane Healy, as well as Helene Plotkin and Karen Roberts Jackson who were our producers at Pixar Animation Studios. In time, both Disney and Pixar saw the light and "Toy Story2" was slated for the big screen. 

The perfect opportunity had presented itself. Disney finally had the perfect Mickey Mouse vehicle and a movie that was sure to play well in theaters. Adding to that, the upcoming celebration of the Mouse's seventy fifth birthday was on the horizon. For a company that prides itself on synergy, things couldn't have been better. Think of the promotional opportunities a movie starring Disney's most famous characters would generate. There was no way the Disney company was going to let this opportunity slip pass them - or so I thought. "The Three Musketeers," starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy was released on home video. The film did enjoy a wonderful, but brief big screen presentation at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood. Those who attended the screening confirmed my belief that the movie would indeed play well theatrically. The theater, pack to the hilt with rambunctious kids fell silent when the movie began. Clearly, this was a movie both parents and kids could enjoy together. "The Three Musketeers" was the family film many of us had been begging Disney to make for years.

I am delighted that Disney finally made "The Three Musketeers." I'm grateful they allowed Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy to be seen by a new generation of kids. And of course, the movie probably made a truck load of cash for the Walt Disney Company. Having said that, I have to conclude it's a sin and a shame this wonderful little film was unceremoniously dumped onto the direct-to-video rack. I even emailed Disney film boss, Dick Cook (no relation to director, Donovan) to reconsider the decision to release the movie to direct-to-video. Dick Cook is a nice guy, but I knew even he had to answer to the big boss upstairs. Finally, in my opinion that's where the rationale for this whole thing becomes clear. Yes, I've heard the arguments why "The Three Musketeers" failed to gain a theatrical release and those reasons probably make a good deal of sense. Yet, I can't help wonder if projects such as "Doug," "Recess," and "Teacher's Pet" can score a big screen release, how hard would it be to give the big push to the most recognizable mouse in the world? Or, perhaps this is not really about shelf space or box office receipts after all. Could there be another agenda, you say? Or, maybe I’m just being paranoid.

Poor Mickey, Donald and Goofy never even got a shot. God help us should the movie going public embrace traditional hand drawn Disney animation.

Poor Mickey, Donald and Goofy never even got a shot. God help us should the movie going public embrace traditional hand drawn Disney animation.

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AuthorFloyd Norman
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Being a cartoonist I couldn’t help but see the irony. Wouldn’t it be weird if I were to die of bullet wounds here on American soil instead of the battleground I once fought on in war torn Korea? However, at the moment I was staring down the business end of police service revolvers and my son and I were well aware we’d best not make any sudden moves. I was proud of my son for his behavior. Like most black fathers I had instructed both my sons how to behave when confronted by police officers. Again, I’ll repeat, when - not if. Because it’s guaranteed if you’re a young black man in America this is going to happen one day. On this particular day my visit to the bank had unexpected consequences. Being a law abiding citizen I never noticed the patrol cars or the police helicopter tracking me on my way home. It was only after pulling into my driveway that I noticed two police officers with weapons drawn. Was I somewhat annoyed? The answer is yes. Was I surprised, you might ask? The answer is no. You see, this was not the first time I’ve had a confrontation with the law. But, more on that later.

My son and I stepped out of the vehicle with hands in the air. If you’re a black man in America, you already know the drill so we complied with everything the officers requested. When checking my drivers license, the policemen seemed surprised to learn I had driven to my own home. Really? Where else would I go? I’m sure my neighbors were surprised by the mid-morning activity. Usually, the only things of interest that time of day are joggers and ladies walking their dogs. I’m happy to say I took this opportunity to have a firm yet respectful conversation about what had just taken place. To their credit, the young officers apologized and returned to their vehicles. The copter overhead, thankfully buzzed off as well. As you can imagine, this was another case of mistaken identify. I know this because my son and I spotted the rather suspicious individuals in the bank parking lot moments earlier. Not only did my son and I not fit the description of the two tall, burly men of color, one of them even sported a Mohawk. As the culprits quickly fled the scene, the two patrol vehicles and a police helicopter took off after the wrong guys. That’s because my son and I “matched” the description of the two baddies. Except for the color of our skin, we looked nothing like the two individuals they were attempting to apprehend.

Before you think this is a diatribe against law enforcement let me remind you I have nothing but the highest respect for the brave men and women who daily put their lives on the line. Plus, our film company produced educational media dealing with the policeman in the community and we had the full support of the department while doing so. Finally, two of our filmmakers were former police officers in the Los Angeles Police Department. If you’re still with me I think you already know where I’m going with this.

I’m guessing I’m probably one of the most benign men you’ll ever meet. If you saw me on the street I doubt you’d find me threatening and I’d like to think I hardly fit the description of a hardened felon. However, on more than one occasion police officers have had me in their sights and I’m just a guy who makes cartoons for a living. Of course, I know the reason why this kind of thing happens and I suspect you do as well. The police officers who leveled their service revolvers at me didn’t see a cartoonist. Hell, they didn’t even see an individual. They saw a black man. And that, my friends is a problem that is uniquely American. I still can’t believe we had this discussion over thirty years ago and I’m sad to say very little has changed in that time. We may have a person of color in the White House but young black men are still considered a threat in this society. And, should you be considered a threat that means you’re also a target. Wait a second! Did I say, young? Let me make a quick correction because I’m in my late seventies and apparently I still scare the cops. I think we know the answer to our current problem. It’s time to end the labels, colors and profiles. It’s time to begin thinking of each other as individuals and not members of a group. It’s time to stop fearing young black men because until we have the personal courage to do so, nothing will change.

Finally, may I make one personal request? Will all you police officers stop pointing your damn weapons at me?

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AuthorFloyd Norman
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Someone requested this sketch of Briar Rose and the little animals from the Walt Disney classic “Sleeping Beauty.” Attempting a sketch of this particular Disney Princess is always a challenge even though I worked on the animated motion picture back in the fifties.

As I prepared to attempt this little color sketch I first looked over some of the artwork from the Disney film that was created over fifty years ago. I remember first seeing a Tom Oreb sketch in Cosmopolitan Magazine while I was still a kid in school. I also remember my first trip to Disneyland in 1955 where Walt Disney had been generous enough to share a few sketches of the motion picture then in early development. Of course, I remember finally arriving at the Walt Disney Studios in 1956 where production 2082 was only beginning to pick up steam. Of course, as a young, green apprentice I had no idea I would going anywhere near this animated Disney masterpiece. After a year had passed an order came down from the Old Maestro himself. “Get this film completed!” Walt demanded. “Put as many artists you can find on the project and get it done!” Suddenly, the Walt Disney Studios moved into high gear and animation units were quickly formed to accomplish the task. Animator, Freddy Hellmich and his team would handle the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Meriweather and I suddenly found myself a part of Freddy’s team. Even with the order from Walt Disney our job would take no less than two and a half years to complete. No doubt a daunting task awaited us all but we were up to the challenge. Our team would occupy a series of offices in G-wing on the first floor of the Animation Building and we would remain there until the job was done.

Today’s CGI animators can burn through animation footage in a matter of months. Sometimes the work can be accomplished in weeks. Not so back in the fifties when animated films were made by artists using only pencil and paper. Our films were crafted by hand and more than a measure of talent was needed to get the job done. Of course, every scene went through sweatbox screenings and every sketch passed the discerning eyes of the Directing animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. I do not exaggerate when I say each scene was often drawn multiple times. For the young Disney artists this was our animation boot camp and it was the best training any animation artist could ever hope for. If you survived “Sleeping Beauty” there was little in animation you couldn’t do. 1958 is a long time ago, but we managed to wrap up the animated movie on schedule and the rest is history. As I sketch this scene from the film I can’t help but remember the wonderful years we spent working on what can only be called one of the most amazing animated film ever made.

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AuthorFloyd Norman