Disney legend Floyd Norman is an artist and animator whose career on films like “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Jungle Book,” and “Toy Story 2” merited his own documentary in 2016 ("Floyd Norman: An Animated Life"). He appears in “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse,” a Disney+ film about the iconic character. In an interview, Norman discussed his first exposure to Mickey Mouse and his favorite of Mickey’s appearances over his near-century on screen, stage, in personal appearances, and as every possible consumer product.
Walt Disney loved to say, “Always remember that it all started with a mouse.” What was your first exposure to Mickey Mouse?
My first introduction to Mickey Mouse was probably in the movie theater. I'm an old codger. We didn't have television back in the old days so we went to the movies. And when my parents took me to the movie theater and I saw the big splash screen of Mickey on the screen, and it said “Walt Disney Mickey Mouse Cartoon,” that was my first introduction to Mickey Mouse. And then, of course, after that, I suddenly found that Mickey Mouse was available everywhere. He was in storybooks, he was in comic books, he was in the newspaper. He was everywhere. And so, I realized that Mickey, like it or not, was going to be a big part of my life.
Mickey was created by Walt Disney, who not only gave him his look but literally provided Mickey’s voice. What aspects of Walt Disney do we see in the character?
You get to see Walt's personality. You get to see Walt Disney's amazing optimism. Walt was an optimist you know, almost to a fault. Mickey Mouse is a total optimist. Walt Disney was incredibly resourceful. And boy, Mickey is resourceful. And Mickey is also somewhat cheeky. There's a mischievous side to Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney as well. Walt’s family has often spoken to me about what a prankster Walt could be, and Mickey is a prankster, too. So, there's so much of Walt Disney in Mickey Mouse, and so much Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney.
There are so many! "The Band Concert" is one and “The Brave Little Tailor” is another. But I think for me, the ultimate Mickey Mouse was the Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence from “Fantasia.” You get a chance to see every aspect of Mickey's personality. The mischievous Mickey, the sad sorry Mickey, the repentant Mickey, the cheeky little guy who probably sticks his fingers where they shouldn't be. It is probably Mickey's greatest performance and worthy of such an elegant venue as that film.
I love the fact that the movie centers on hand-drawn animation. We love computers and they do wonderful things, but what is it that only can be done with hand-drawn?
In hand-drawn, the animator pours his or her heart into that drawing. That drawing lives because the animator truly gives it life. There's no mechanical interface to get in the way. When you're animating on the computer you've got to deal with the mechanics of technology. But when you're animating traditional hand-drawn animation, when your pencil touches the paper, there's literally a flow from the animator, from the animator's body, from that pencil tip onto the paper and that character lives because the animator literally gives it life and it comes alive. The computer can't do that. The computer can only imitate life and a rather poor imitation of that. And that's why hand-drawn animation will be the only real way to animate Mickey Mouse.
Do you think that we will see more hand-drawn Mickey animation in the future?
I certainly hope so, because when it comes to animating Mickey, even though he can be animated digitally it's only Mickey with pencil and paper. That kind of organic nature of hand-drawn, traditional filmmaking can give us the real Mickey Mouse. Everything else is somewhat of an imitation. But to bring Mickey to life, to truly bring him to life, you have to pick up a pencil and you have to draw on paper. And as long as we have talented men and women who can express these marvelous images on paper, Mickey will always have life because of the animators. It doesn't matter what generation. They will always be able to give Mickey Mouse life and Mickey will always be with us.
The film is frank about some of the aspects of Mickey that are difficult, both creatively and culturally. He's both the corporate logo that has to be universal and a character that requires some conflict and risks. Some of his early work is not consistent with our understanding of human dignity today. How do we reconcile all of that?
It's amazing that somehow it still works. We have all of these manifestations of Mickey, and yet it doesn't seem to bother anybody that Mickey is on a cruise ship, that he's a greeter at a theme park, that he might be a company mascot, that he might appear in all of these guises. And yet with all of that, we still recognize Mickey Mouse. We know who he is. He's ever consistent even though he changes. He's still Mickey. And I think that's something quite marvelous about this character. No other character has that kind of amazing flexibility. That's what makes him certainly a Disney marvel.
"Mickey: The Story of a Mouse" will be available on Disney+ on Friday, November 18th.