Like the man himself, "Floyd Norman: An Animated Life" is genial on the surface but lets us go a little deeper into an unusual life than we might have expected.
Now over 80, Norman is a genuine pioneer, the first black artist hired by Disney. He is, as documentary directors Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey put it, a bit of a Forrest Gump of the animation world, present at all kinds of key moments, from the original "Jungle Book" to "Toy Story 2," since he was employed by the studio in 1956.
Norman comes off as warm and unaffected, but there is a bite to his wry sense of humor, complexities that can be sensed underneath his easygoing smile.
"He has a way of looking outside himself," says his wife and Disney employee Adrienne Brown-Norman. "It's almost like he stands outside his body."
Norman has driven his wife to work at Disney every day for the last 15 years but hasn't turned around and gone home. He's refused to let the fact that he no longer works at the place — he was let go when he was 65 -- stop him from doing what employees have come to call "Floydering," a kind of creative loitering/kibbitzing in the Disney offices.
Rather than being bitter at his termination, Norman's found a solution that still allows him to participate in a world he loves. "I don't see a 79-year-old man," says "Beauty and the Beast" co-director Gary Trousdale, "I see a kid who loves cartoons."
Trousdale is one of a number of animators who talk about Norman and his work, and "An Animated Life" is almost as much about how the feature animation process functions as it is about the artist himself.
Norman grew up in Santa Barbara, in an environment so free of overt racism that Brown-Norman says its existence surprised him when he first visited relatives in the deep South.
When, at age 6, Norman saw "Dumbo" at Santa Barbara's classic movie palace the Arlington, he knew animation would be his life, and when his dad pointed out the Disney studio from the family car, he knew that was the place he wanted to be.
Norman caught a break in high school when he got a part-time job with Bill Woggon inking the nationally syndicated Katy Keene comic books. When Disney hired him, he points out, being a pioneer was not on his mind: "I was just another artist looking for a job."
One of the pleasures of "An Animated Life" is hearing Norman, who ended up in the studio's story department, recall what it was like working with Disney the individual, not the distant corporation.
"It was cool to be in the room with Walt as long as he didn't spot you," he says of the hands-on leader. "He'd look at something and say, 'That's not funny, do it again. I don't like it.'"
When Disney died unexpectedly in 1966, Norman ended up leaving the company for a time to try other things. It was, Brown-Norman says, like losing a father: "There was nobody left to please."
Norman and fellow animator Leo Sullivan founded Vignette Films, which among other things did ahead-of-its-time short films for high schools on African-American figures like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.
The variety of projects Norman was part of, both outside Disney and when he returned, make quite a list. He worked on the original 1969 "Hey, Hey, Hey, It's Fat Albert" television special, did a stint with Hanna-Barbera, wrote the Mickey Mouse daily and Sunday comic strip for six years, even designed the animated logo for "Soul Train."
All this work took a toll on Norman's personal life, as interviews with his first wife and their children point out. And second wife Brown-Norman also provides a candid look at their unconventional courtship.
Though Norman is devoted to his work, you also sense from him the absence of ego that is necessary to be part of the trial-and-error feature animation process. "What we do is not permanent," the animator says of his own individual efforts. "What is permanent comes from many, many, many tries."
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Laemmle's NoHo, North Hollywood
"Floyd Norman: An Animated Life." An informative documentary on the African American animation pioneer who worked on everything from the original "Jungle Book" to "Toy Story 2" since he was hired by Disney in 1956. - Kenneth Turan