Two years later saw the emergence of a very different style of animation in 101 Dalmations, co-directed by Reitherman with Hamilton Luske and Clyde Geronimi. Many of the elaborate techniques and artistic embellishments, which had been a feature of every animated film since Snow White, were now abandoned; but the revolutionary Xerox system of transferring the animator’s drawings to celluloid, pioneered with Dalmatians, had a new energy and an astonishing fluidity of line. Speaking of this new-style Disney animation, Reitherman said: ‘We captured the line that the artist put down on paper, not that of the person who previously had to trace it in ink. Perhaps it wasn’t so artistic, but in terms of artful delineation of characters, it was a great advance.’
In 1963, Woolie Reitherman became the first animator to single-handedly direct a Disney cartoon feature, The Sword in the Stone. His success in directing the story of the young King Arthur made him Disney’s choice as director for the studio’s next feature, Jungle Book.
‘When we started work on The Jungle Book,’ Reitherman was to recall, ‘I remember Walt saying:
“Look, let’s get rid of all that icky-sticky sweet stuff, and let’s just make this for good characters. We don’t need a lot of story – I mean who the hell reads Kipling nowadays anyway? We’ll make our own story.” So it started there.’ And the result was a film that, whilst bearing little resemblance to anything ever written by Kipling, was a masterpiece of comic character animation, and Reitherman’s greatest directorial achievement. The Jungle Book was released in 1967, a year after the death of Walt Disney.
There was now Disney, but no Walt. In the vacuum which existed following the death of the studio’s founder, Reitherman was asked to assume responsibility for the production of animated films. This he did and (together with the other veteran animators who comprised the legendary Nine Old Men to whom Disney had looked for the safeguarding of his studio’s heritage of animation art) made the feature-length films The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound, as well as several short films including the highly-popular series of Winnie-the-Pooh adventures.
Reitherman is remembered by his peers as a producer and director with great objectivity and a dedication to keeping alive the spirit of Disney. Anyone who ever met him will remember him as a modest, unassuming man with a boyish enthusiasm for the wonderful business of making drawings come to life. Perhaps more than anything, he will be remembered as the man who created Monstro the Whale, the Maleficent-dragon and those lumbering denizens of the prehistoric world which showed us, in Fantasia, that animation was so much more than just cartoons.
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Printed in Animator Issue 14 (Winter 1985)