Although it's sketchy at the start and rushed at the end, Stefan Kanfer's exploration of the tangled profits, social mores and popular art behind animated film triumphs with the same qualities essential to the best cartoons: guts and vitality. He knows that previous surveys of the field have been snobbishly indifferent to commerce, too protective of the subject or just dry and picture-dependent.
Like an animator who knows where the high points of the action are, Kanfer zooms in on acute images and insights. He notes that the first true animated American short concluded with the words "Coon" and "Cohen" turning into ugly caricatures. The first cartoon superstar, Felix the Cat, collapsed after the 1920s, Kanfer argues, partly because his slapstick appeal was so much like a silent film comedian's. A particularly smart aside notes that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? pulled animation out of a long slump largely due to the brilliant reaction work of a human actor, Bob Hoskins. Serious Business, however, does not try to overthrow the law of cartoon history, which is that there have been three epochs: Before Walt, During Walt and After Walt. I know of no better miniature portrait of Disney the relentless, mercurial, reactionary, anti-Semitic, genius storyteller than Kanfer's.
Like every other animator, Disney knew that cartoons began as a kind of technological magic trick shortly after the turn of the century. Pioneer Winsor McKay, with his forever-unequaled technical flair, was able to make art of the gimmick. After the arrival of sound, only Disney created first-rate entertainment with heart. But when it comes to lust for vengeance on perceived enemies and betrayers, or poisoned politics, Nixon had nothing on Disney. Kanfer quotes him as calling this "the century of the Communist cutthroat, the fag and the whore." But as Disney became preoccupied with model trains and theme parks, his studio's cartoon work sputtered for 20 years before his death in 1966.
Television had long taken over by this point, and Serious Business explains with fine clarity how the new medium demanded quicker production time, simpler drawing and a much more pinched morality (which had been on the rise since Betty Boop last swiveled her boop-oop-a-doop across the big screen). The droll, punning wit of Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle was a gleaming exception in TV's dust heap of reruns, kid-product pimps and Hanna-Barbera crap sitcoms.
Serious Business closes on a high note of hefty profits and brighter days ahead. The Simpsons, a descendent of Rocky and Bullwinkle, rides high in the prime-time ratings, and Beavis and Butt-head extend the morons-and-mayhem format of the earliest cartoons. Kanfer seems unjustifiably optimistic that the revitalized Disney will go from triumph to triumph. Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are running on a lot lower octane than Beauty and the Beast or even The Lion King.
Serious Business itself could use a stronger pictorial element; the book is too small to fully showcase the illustrations. Kanfer's deft prose is miles ahead of the usual academic/fanboy mumble of most animation books, but the editing is oddly sloppy at times. In a quote, animator Bob Clampett refers to one of his characters as Dishonest John and a sentence later Kanfer calls him Honest John. With a bit more scope and detail as well as another swipe of polish, Serious Business could have been a masterstroke -- a "What's Opera, Doc?" instead of a merely delightful "Corny Concerto." -- Salon