February 12, 2024

Hirschfeld Reviews Disney

"walt disney"

In the latest episode of The Hirschfeld Century Podcast, the Al Hirschfeld Foundation team discusses Hirschfeld's unique relationship with Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company in honor of their 100th anniversary. Hirschfeld drew several Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Mary Poppins, and more. He also inspired the Genie from Aladdin and later the "Rhapsody in Blue" segment from ​Fantasia 2000. Hirschfeld also wrote reviews of Disney's first three full-length animated feature films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Fantasia

The following are Al Hirschfeld's reviews as highlighted in the "Disney" episode of The Hirschfeld Century Podcast. 

"An Artist Contests Mr. Disney"

Review of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - The New York Times - January 30, 1938

Art critics whose function it is to interpret visual imagery have neglected the most important graphic exhibition of our time. Namely: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Cinema critics have distinguished themselves by blessing it with everything from “* * * *” to “the ten best pictures of the year,” which it certainly justifies when related to factual photography. But therein lies the fault. The only reasonable basis for comparison should be analogous mediums such as "Silly Symphonies" or animated cartoons. These are drawings, each one an integral part of the illusion created by painstakingly photographing one after the other in logical sequence. and as such I should like to comment on them.

The necessity of technique and the necessity of stylization in animated graphic art are the essential imitations which unite the greatest economy with the greatest efficiency. Much praise has been written about the Dwarfs by competent reviewers, and I enthusiastically join in their huzzahs. These inspired gnomes, with their geometrical noses, flexible cheeks, linear mouths and eyes, highly stylized beards, costumes and three fingers lend themselves to articulation because of the tremendous magic of well directed lines.

But the characters Snow White, Prince Charming and the Queen are badly drawn attempts at realism: they imitate pantographically the actions of their counterparts in factual photography. The illusion created by a well directed pen line is an art not to be confused with the gingerbread realities of a Snow White. Disney’s treatment of these characters belongs in the oopsy-woopsy school of art practiced mostly by etchers who portray dogs with cute sayings. Snow White with her full complement of fingers and fingernails, eyelashes, one dimensional head, bare arms without solidity and uninventive neck is an anatomic automaton. These awkward symbols do not articulate, and the lovely voice with which she is endowed only heightens the effort of a ventriloquist’s dummy. The staccato movements of Snow White and her cardboard lover, both wired for sound, are distinctly bad influences in this new art form. To imitate an animated photograph except as satire is in poor taste.

And realism in drawing cannot confine itself to human figures but must contaminate its immediate surroundings to conform to the plausibility of human figures. A specific example of this contagious influence may be observed toward the end of this film. Prince Charming lifts Snow White and places her on his white charger. The horse is badly drawn because Snow White and Prince Charming are badly drawn. This scene, whose only virtue is its consistency, could not avoid being bad all the way through. The virus of literalness had impregnated Horace Horsecollar and he became a carousel horse. Compare this realism with the greater reality of pure fantasy enjoyed by the little bird who easily winks, laughs, scratches his head, chirps and cries, or the fly who sleeps on Doc’s nose. 

To substitute animals for human beings is an excellent device, as many artists before Disney have discovered. George Herriman, whose artistic integrity remains unimpeached after thirty years’ syndication of Krazy Kat, and Tad of Judge Rummy fame are two of the most successful exponents of this device in the publication field. I do not mean to imply that Disney has offered us nothing new. I merely wish to point out that Mickey Mouse is great art and not a clever novelty, and Disney should not underestimate the genius of his original invention. All drawings is subject to influences. The important thing is to be “tuned in” on the right ones. For this there is no formula. But I feel that the influences at work on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” are corrupting Disney’s style.

* * *

I laughed loud and long when Chaplin in “City Lights” swallowed a policeman’s whistle and hiccoughed a high wheeze. When Dopey, an excellently designed dwarf, swallows a cake of soap and burps bubbles it is just as funny but no funnier. The animated cartoon medium is used to its better advantage in the sequence showing this same character (Dopey) cautiously tiptoeing into the bedroom where the ghostlike movement of a sheet frightens him into a few lines to denote speed. The striving for effect in Snow White is an unhealthy one. In Disney’s less ambitious works there is unity of figures and background. But now he is working back toward realistic photography. With a little imagination one can foresee the use of constructed miniature sets with four dimensional puppets mechanically operated on them. From this innocuous departure a “mediocre genius” could once more revolutionize the motion picture industry by reverting to human beings instead of puppets. The necessity of transforming plaster reproductions into imitation bronze and real bronze into imitation gold and real gold into imitation silver and real silver into imitation pewter or the hundreds of incongruities prevalent in industrial enterprise has never been successfully explained to me. You may put me down as an eccentric but I still prefer wood wood and metal metal and caricature caricature. 

An able critic writes: “an artist friend of mine has objected strenuously to the fact that the water in the well looks like real water, arguing that when cartoons approach that close to actuality, real people and real backgrounds had better be used.”

I championed this argument. In the first place, the typist who types an author’s scribblings at the rate of 141 words a minute is as essential to literature as the “water-in-the-well” craftsman is to art. There is nothing to be gained by such instances where the limitations of the camera demand it. An example of this limitation is the impracticability of photographing twinkling stars at night. And further, if the object to be photographed no longer exists in space it may successfully be recreated through animated drawing which closely follows the conjectured object. The finished product is invariably an affinity of taxidermy rather than graphic art. In the first animated cartoon ever made, Windsor McKay, through inventive drawing and magical line, took the papier mâché dinosaur out of the museum and made it again walk the surface of the earth.

* * *

I admire the skill and organization required to assemble a major effort such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and am properly impressed. If this comment seems captious it is deliberately so. My primary interest is the proper appreciation of caricature and its allied arts. With the accompanying hosannas which “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” have been justifiably receiving I feel it incumbent on me to inject a small voice of reason as one craftsman to another. And so, Mr. Disney, it is with regret and some anger that I feel you have made the biggest needle-point ever devised by man. 

Disney Versus Art

Review of Pinocchio - The New York Times - March 30, 1940

Two years ago, in some comments upon “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” I suggested that art critics should regard the animated drawings as a serious form of graphic art. To judge by the response of animated artists, this appraisal is sorely need. With the exception of a few artists who are interested in the subject, critics discuss the animated drawing in terms of box-office entertainment. 

Many columns of justifiable praise have been written by competent critics on the entertainment value of the animated movie and they have made the animators more conscious of the literary scope of their medium. But animated pictures are primarily drawings, the gallery being a movie house rather than a modern museum, and this is where the art critic might perform a valuable service.

Every art has its limitations and the animated drawing is no exception. These limitations may be handicaps for people with small talents, but they are problems that challenge a creative man’s imagination. It is in this vein that I venture a few further observations on Mr. Disney’s “Pinocchio.”


To create an illusion of reality, Mr. Disney frequently handicaps himself with literary devices. For example, the idea of employing puppets to create a feeling of realism in the character of the toy-maker may seem shrewd from a literary point of view. But it does not apply in drawing. What happens is just the opposite: The puppets seem more real than the toy-maker.

Watch attentively the whirling of the Russian puppets. These drawings and their general conception of line and color are the finest animated work to be seen. The stylized beards and costumes lend themselves beautifully to animation. In their frenzied whirl they become spinning colors. Compare these with the synthetic realism of the eyelashed, fingernailed, bookish fairy. She might looks well on top of a cake by Oscar of the Waldorf but she is miscast in a major work like “Pinocchio.” Animated drawings do not have to imitate factual human, animal, geological or architectural form. The camera can do that ably.

From the point of view of art, “Pinocchio” might be regarded as a “group show” deserving the patronage of all lovers of fine draftsmanship. It is a much finer showing than “Snow White.” But still it lacks unity of form. Animated drawings have in common with most cooperative arts the problem of presenting a unified picture. 

In “Pinocchio” this problem has not been honestly met. The excellent signing, hilarious gags and technical surprises have nothing to do with the art of drawing. They merely divert your attention from the basic fault. The realistic backgrounds with caricatures superimposed on them represent bastard form.

I hazarded this cynical guess in my comments upon “Snow White”: “With a little imagination once can forsee the use of constructed miniatures sets with three-dimensional puppets mechanically operated on them.”

This prophecy has become partially substantiated by the sets in “Pinocchio.” The first time I saw the picture I assumed that they were constructed miniatures. Further inquiry reveals that they are cut-outs photographed by a multi-plane camera. That is a detail. The point I want to make is that they finished sets project as though they were constructed; and until such time as the multi-plane camera can photograph and project a flat caricature in three dimensions the problem of wedding realism and caricature remains unsolved. 

The important thing is that realistic illustrations, no matter how stereoptic, are not congenial backgrounds for linear caricatures, except when the effect desired is a deliberate contrast of these two forms of expression. An example of the legitimate use of these opposing mediums may be found in “Pinocchio.” Jiminy Cricket, as the narrator of the story, creates the illusion of Pinocchio’s conscience by being drawn in outline against a modeled background. If a similar character were to be used in a realistic photoplay he might with reasonable truth be made transparent. This device was used with great success in “Topper.”

Another example of the successful wedding of realism and caricature was Max Fleischer’s animated cartoon series, “Out of the Inkwell.” These animated drawings superimposed on animated photographs told well and simply the story of a one-dimensional drawing living in a three-dimensional world.

The sets and props in “Pinocchio” have no purpose other than to serve as an integral part of the design. It is in this respect that they fall as finished drawings.  I keep carping on the backgrounds as “out of key” when, of course, it might be said with as much truth that the caricatures are “out of key” in relation to the background.

All rules in art are made to be broken by the artist, but up to now my preference is for the simple, unified line drawing. This prejudice is based on experience. I have seen realistic figures against realistic backgrounds in parts of Mr. Disney’s “Snow White.” The realistic backgrounds restricted freedom of movement in the characters. 

In “Pinocchio,” I was interested and annoyed at the constant battle for supremacy between the background illustrations, with their molasses modeling, and the brilliantly articulated images invading them. The thoroughly satisfying drawings of Jiminy Cricket’s head in close-up show clearly the potentialities of magical line when his stylized eyeballs trace the varied rhythms of pendular clocks. 

Figaro the Cat and Cleo the Goldfish are more believable in their calendar art environment than the other characters because they have a minimum of actual lines in their drawing. Cleo is a translucent, gossamer-like fish whose only black lines are the ovals used for eyes and the eight lines for eyelashes which she waves with incalculable meaning. Figaro’s body is black with white chest, face, paws and tip of his tail. The whites are silhouetted by the dark backgrounds, and the only visible lines used in his conception are outlines for eyes and four lines for whiskers. 

My quarrel is not with the intelligent use of the multi-plane camera or T-squares or ruling pens, but with the corruption to taste these instruments have brought. These technical advances should be used to further the original genius of animation and not to produce clever novelties. We are no longer amazed that motion pictures talk. We are now interested in what they say. And so it is with the animated drawing.


Fantasia Review

Unpublished - Circa. 1940-1942

Note: The following comes from Al Hirschfeld's draft of his unpublished review. 

The complete picture “Fantasia” has been reviewed by movie critics. Its music has been commented upon by music critics. This review will try and confine itself to the drawings, or the visual imagery, which is the main-spring of this new art form.

With every successive spectacle emanating from Mr. Disney’s studio the good drawings get better and the bad drawings become more profuse. In his latest adventure the drawings with few exceptions are uninspired creations of spun sugar. The original simplicity of animated line drawing is a far cry from the greeting card art and Futuramas he now employs.

Mr. Deems Taylor, the narrator in the film, has conveniently labeled the music as story telling, pictorial and absolute. I might say for the illustrations that they are good, bad and mostly indifferent. This wedding of sound and pictures is an unhappy marriage. Most of the time they are fighting and sound invariably has its way.

The drawings of the dancing Chinese mushrooms in Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” are beautifully conceived. Their linear simplicity and articulation rank with the best work every to come out of the Disney studio. Notice particularly the intelligent use of background and color. The unanimity of praise for this sequence is richly deserved. But in the same selection there are drawing of fairies who live in an air brush world. These drawings and all the drawings of fairies throughout the films are bad. The realism strived for in these drawings is a spurious imitation of the original. The tracing of a photograph does not assure realism since most photographs are out of drawing. The un-edited perspective of a photograph, when translated into a drawing, is a bad drawing even tho it be a good photograph. 

In many scenes throughout the film the obvious use of photographs translated into line drawings is apparent. I much prefer a drawing that goes bad in its own way. Mickey Mouse, as an illustration of my point, is pure invention. He is not anatomically restricted to the movements of a mouse. His geometric head, gloved four fingers and large shoes are easily adapted to any costume. A flowing robe, a dunce-like hat, a hypnotic gesture with his hands and he becomes “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. This quality can never be duplicated with the labored self conscious tracing of a photo. 

Fantasy is not achieved merely by putting wings on a real horse. In Beethoven’s “Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony” there are many drawings of centaurs and centaurettes. One might assume that this was right up Mr. Disney’s alley. Centaurs and centaurettes, regardless of whether or not they illustrate Beethoven, do lend themselves to animated drawing. But Mr. Disney’s quest for imitative realism is exhibited here at its worst. Chorus girls and Esquire men in horse costumes is all that projects from the screen. 

The sketches for “The Dance of the Hours” from “Gioconda” reach a new high in animated art. The serpentine neck and feathers of the ostrich are used for all they’re worth to satirize the ballet. The elephants, hippopotami’s and crocodiles are full of good ideas. They are drawn with authority. The artist or artists who drew these drawings stands out like a diamond in a sea of fudge.

Some parts of the film, particularly Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, might just as convincingly be stage presentations photographed in technicolor. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” is the absolute in music and the indifferent in drawing. Interspersed with montage and varicolored geometric shapes and fountain displays, Bach is given everything but a Lagoon of Nations. Those spots before our eyes are not caused by a faulty liver, that’s Art, Mister. These little things floating brightly in space and plunging deep in the impenetrable black of the film, to be followed by other bright little things hurtling to their doom, and still more hurrying to their destiny and then more and more—all to the accompaniment of Leopold Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra reproduced by Fanta-sound, well, maybe it’s a little bit due to your liver at that, but, mainly I’s Art. 

This new art form is more convincing when ideas, rather than abstractions, emanate from the designs. The debut of the sound track is a good illustration in point. A primitive drum beat transforms the single line into African motifs, the sound of the violin suggests a whirling ballerina and other instruments are as ingeniously interpreted. The sound and drawings are well matched here and form a unified emotion. 

And so while I greatly admire the experimental idea which prompted the making of this film I must deplore the self conscious timidity of the drawings. Moholy-Nagy, Bauer or Kandinsky, exponents of non-objective art, may not appeal to your taste but their faith in what they are doing belittles any pedant criticism of their work. The same may be said for Epstein’s approach to sculpture or Chaplin’s conviction in “The Great Dictator.” The drawings in “Fantasia”, with notable exceptions, lack authority and strive for a manufactured culture combining the worst features of commercial illustration and architectural renderings. The result is an illustrated lecture with music. Maybe that is what Mr. Disney set out to do, and as such he has done a remarkable job.


The "Disney" episode of The Hirschfeld Century Podcast is out now. The Hirschfeld Century Podcast is available at alhirschfeldfoundation.org/podcasts or anywhere you get your podcasts.

Highlights from HIrschfeld Century Podcast Episode 44

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