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Disney animation: behind the scenes

By Arthur Unger / April 24, 1981

The longest-running program in TV history -- "Disney's Wonderful World" -- is celebrating itself. Begun on ABC in 1954 as "Disneyland" and switching to NBC in 1961 (it will be on CBS next season), the Disney show has had the ratings misfortune for many years of airing opposite one of TV's most popular shows, "60 Minutes."

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Both shows are usually fine programs for the whole family, and although "60 Minutes" remains one of my own favorites, I suggest that this Sunday viewers might turn to NBC for a rare Wonderful World special: "The Art of Disney Animation" (NBC, Sunday, 7-8 p.m., check local listings). It is almost good enough to air as a segment on "60 Minutes."

First, allow me to confess that animated film, other than Disney, has always been a problem for me.Avant-garde Czechoslovak, Yugoslav, and even Canadian animated films -- very popular in the 1960s -- always puzzled me. Somehow, despite my initial lose the thread of the story lines quickly and find myself watching wiggles engaged in incomprehensible intellectualized activities, all of which always seem to end with the truimph of good over evil, something which it is impossible to deplore.

I am probably the only one in the world who found it hard to concentrate on the Beatles' gorgeously animated Yellow Submarine." More recently, I have had my difficulties with the morality as well as the story lines of a whole series of cult-animation features by Bakshi.

But Disney has always been on my lumpenm animation-IQ level, starting with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (Although I must admit I had have had some difficulty with Donald's speech on occasion) and progressing to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Dumbo," "Bambi," and even the more difficult, complexly anti-intellectualized and comparatively esoteric "Fantasia."

I could always sit back and enjoy Disney animation without feeling, as I often do now with Feiffer cartoons, that I have been mugged by a high-IQ drawing pencil masquerading as a simple crayon.

If I were to be crass about it, I might accuse the Disney organization of planning this special to promote its newest (actually the 20th) full-length, about-to-be-released animated feature, "THe Fox and the Hound," which figures prominently in the program. But I have already been crass enough for today, so I will overlook the unsubtle promotional aspects of the special and concentrate on the fact that this is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Disney animated film operation, with little "Pollyanna" star Hayley Mills as a now-grown-up guide who is a puzzled and amazed by the magic of the drawing board as any of us.

Featured in the show are examples of the Disney studios' work for five decades in both cinema and TV. There are scenes from as far back as "Playing Pluto" (1931), and also scenes from the most recent Disney animated products, all of which still carry on the tradition of family entertainment started by the now mythical Walt Disney.

Perhaps, for some young Disney fans, it will be a disillusionment to learn the tricks of the trade, to see the three-dimensional figures first devised, before the animators transpose them into two dimensions, to see how a series of drawings is manipulated to give the illusion of movement, to see and hear Andriana Casselotti, the voice of Snow White, tell how she auditioned with Walt Disney hiding behind a partition so he would not be influenced by her appearance , since all he wanted was the right voice.

And for some Disneyphiles, it may be upsetting to hear the animators talk like ordinary people and reveal how they steal personality from real people for their animated characters, and how many animators relate personally to the drawing-board people they create.