April 16th, 2008
02:54 PM ET

The Disney tradition

Ollie Johnston, the last of Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men," died Monday. He was 95.

Ollie Johnston was the last of the Disney stable of animators known as the "Nine Old Men."

Johnston and his colleagues, including Frank Thomas, Eric Larson and Ward Kimball, are the animators responsible for that distinctive invention: the "Disney film," the feature-length animated classics that include "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia" and "Lady and the Tramp." The early films, in particular, are flawless combinations of art and story, so timeless and indestructible the studio could release them every seven years and instill a sense of wonder each time.

Today we live in an age of computer animation, technologically spectacular but sometimes wanting creatively. Too many films substitute artistic detail for story, something that Walt Disney didn't tolerate, especially in the early days. (As noted in Neal Gabler's brilliant biography "Walt Disney," he rode his animators hard but maintained a paternal relationship until a mid-'40s union dispute. Indeed, the contrasts between the buttoned-down Disney and the wild men over at Warner Bros.' "Termite Terrace," chafing under the stewardship of Leon Schlesinger, say much about the style of their productions.)

There are notable exceptions, none better than Disney's natural successor (and affiliate), Pixar. In the "Toy Story" films, "Monsters Inc." and particularly Brad Bird's amazing work, you can see the attention to detail - including story detail - Disney would have enjoyed. The Nine Old Men would be proud.

It's no surprise that both Johnston and Thomas had small roles in Bird's "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles." They knew who upheld tradition.

- Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

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