Frank and Ollie

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

The Disney Renaissance was a heady time, not just for the animation industry at large but for the Walt Disney Company. The 1980s began as a dark time for Disney but concluded as the company began to ascend new heights of creative and financial success, largely thanks to the innovative animation at the heart of films like The Little Mermaid. The 1990s were an even more exciting time for Disney: the studio netted its first Best Picture nominee for animation, and films like Aladdin and The Lion King were massive box-office successes.

It stands to reason, then, that the company was willing to do what it did best: take a look back in nostalgia.

The Pitch

This time, though, Disney would look back at itself as opposed to historical eras or well-known fables and fairy tales. There were, among those in the know, some truly legendary animators who worked at Disney during its Golden Age all the way through the passing of Walt himself. A couple handfuls of them had been dubbed the Nine Old Men, primarily because they’d been part of the studio for decades. Two of those nine, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, became the subject of Disney’s documentary Frank and Ollie. Directed by Theodore Thomas (Frank’s son), Frank and Ollie is intended to be a lighthearted look back at the lives of two best friends who were fortunate enough to be at the center of one of American popular culture’s most important creative flashpoints. 

The Movie

As you can imagine, with the son of one of the subjects directing the film, Frank and Ollie is not a challenging or contentious affair. (You may scoff at the very notion that a Walt Disney Pictures documentary could be remotely challenging or contentious. I invite you to watch The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, in which we learn that Richard and Robert Sherman, brothers and immensely talented songwriters, didn’t exactly get along. It’s not the roughest documentary you’ll watch, but considering that it’s a Disney title, it’s more uncomfortable than you might think.) While Frank and Ollie is the cinematic equivalent of easy listening, it’s all the more fascinating to watch and understand how such unassuming-looking men were responsible for some of the funniest, most memorable, most vividly emotional moments in feature animation.

That, by the way, is the true throughline of Frank and Ollie, even more so than the documentation of their decades-long friendship. It’s that Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston are celebrated here for their immense, distinctive talents as animators. The first 30 years of Disney’s animated features are marked by the presence of Frank and Ollie: everything from the silly dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the climactic moments of The Jungle Book bears their signature. The great strength of this film isn’t in its warm and cheerful depiction of how Frank and Ollie get along so well after so many years together as friends (though Andy Gaskill, a production designer on The Lion King, which arrived in theaters just a few months before this premiered at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, notes that he can’t recall having such a solid relationship with another man). It’s in pinpointing how the animation from Disney’s Golden Age and beyond was cemented by these men and others gave life to characters in ways that voice work can’t suffice.

The legend goes that Walt Disney introduced his animators to the idea of making a full-length adaptation of the Snow White fairy tale by performing every part of it, over a three-hour nighttime presentation. The performative element of character animation is easily overlooked by viewers. When you watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you may recall the image of the horrid old hag (the Evil Queen in disguise, of course) as she offers a “nice, juicy apple” to the fair maiden who doesn’t realize it’s poisoned. But you may fixate more on the quavery voice uttering those words, and less on the artistry involved in making each facial expression, each physical movement as recognizable and alive.

That’s where animators like Frank and Ollie stepped in. Throughout Frank and Ollie, the remembrances each man shares of various features they worked on at Disney Animation are intercut with moments of the elderly animators performing bits of those very features that they animated. At first glance, it seems a little quaint and cutesy to watch an old guy pretend, for example, to be the Queen of Hearts as she’s in the middle of one of her temper tantrums. But as more and more of these moments are displayed, it becomes much clearer how many Disney classics relied on men like Frank and Ollie (and sadly, it was mostly just men) capturing the drama of the characters through watching their own actions.

Frank and Ollie is pleasant enough to watch with or without these bits of humane acting, but watching the two men go through – with genuine energy and emotion – some scenes in Disney history is itself a thrilling lesson in art. What occurs around these pieces isn’t a jaw-dropping expose into the past of the Walt Disney Company. It’s charming and light and easy enough to watch without being pressed into deep thought. Frank and Ollie, fittingly enough, comes alive most often when it asks the men of the title to do the same.

The Legacy

Walt Disney Pictures was no stranger to documentaries before the release of Frank and Ollie in 1995, but they hadn’t spent a lot of time releasing movies about the Walt Disney Company. Since then, there have been a few such films, from the recent Howard about the excellent lyricist Howard Ashman to The Boys to Waking Sleeping Beauty, the film documenting the heady experience of working through the Disney Renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s. 

But the real legacy left behind is that of the work that Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston created during their time at Disney Animation. It’s present every time that you watch Snow White or Bambi or The Jungle Book on Disney+. And, in its own way, it’s an incalculable legacy that Disney has tried to repeat over the last decade. In the same way that Disney didn’t use to gaze upon itself in documentary form, this movie arrived before the era of Disney remaking its own content. 

Watching Frank and Ollie is a reminder of something that the two men spoke about in, admittedly, a much different context: their brief cameo at the end of Brad Bird’s first film with Pixar, The Incredibles. You may recall, after the climax in a metropolis where Bob Parr and his family stop the nefarious Syndrome, seeing two old men look on, impressed. “That’s the way to do it. Old school,” one man says to the other. “No school like the old school,” the other replies, chuckling. Those two men were voiced by Frank and Ollie, animators who had inspired Bird and countless others with their methods, captured in the book The Illusion of Life

When you watch even the clips of the films Frank and Ollie worked on, and think about how Disney has remade a number of those films (or, in the case of Snow White and Bambi, merely threatened to do so), it’s easy to agree. There really is no school like the old school. The work that Frank and Ollie created, so lovingly brought back to life in the film bearing their names, was unrepeatable. It’s beyond duplication. They achieved so much beyond words in their time at Disney. There’s a reason why so few animators since their time have ever achieved such legendary, iconic status.

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