Mary Blair's mural at a Disney resort

The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt

If You Like Your Disney Princesses, You’ll Love the WOMEN Who Created Them (and much more)

Like so many other fields that we’re finding out about these days, there were a lot of women working in Disney animation whose significant contributions have gone mostly uncredited until now. That’s the story of The Queens of Animation.

The Existence of Disney Animation is a Miracle.

You might be surprised to discover that the real revelation of this book is not the presence of female employees. In the early days, Disney films seemed to lose money more often than they made it. Many people would have moved on, but Walt Disney didn’t give up.

And women significantly contributed to the successes they did have, and arguably saved Disney animation.

After Walt Disney and his brother died, in fact, Disney studios nearly stopped making animated features for quite a while. When they finally re-emerged, the contributions of female artists to the very films that are now considered classics had been forgotten.

Luckily, just about every scrap of paper (or any other media) produced by the Disney company was saved by the Disney company for future reference. Nathalia Holt, author of Queens of Animation, had all the resources she could ever hope for in their archives, waiting for discovery. They were hidden in plain sight, just like the work of one of the artists with the longest career at Disney, Mary Blair.

The Queens of Animation as a Group Biography

When writing a group biography, the author has to balance details about individuals without making the book disjointed. In addition, author Nathalia Holt also must explain the workings of a very complicated organization.

At the beginning of the book, Holt includes two very helpful infographics to guide you along the way. They include a time line of the major releases discussed in the book and a collage of the five main women that she profiles.

Although there are some uneven patches, Holt mostly balances focus with detail to engage the reader.

What Else is Great About The Queens of Animation

You might find the first chapters a bit slow. At times, the book bogs in technical details to explain leaps in animation technology between 1928 and 1940. Looking at clips on YouTube while you read helps.

Until I read this book, I didn’t appreciate how quickly Disney went from “Steamboat Willie” in 1928, through the smash hit Snow White in 1938 to Fantasia in 1940.

Try to enjoy the ride (and skim anything that’s too technical for you). You will gain a new appreciation for animated film whether you are a big fan or not. The detail of this section is worth it. If early animators had the patience to do the work necessary to invent animation, at least we can take the time to read about it.

You will even better appreciate the women’s usually uncredited contributions.

After devoting long passages to Fantasia, the pace of the book quickens significantly. Although I have no particular knowledge of visual arts and generally have a very mild interest in Disney at all, the story continued to entrance me.

Much of the narrative focuses on Disney’s most famous films. I grew up during the years when Disney produced few animated films and video didn’t exist, so I didn’t see them much. Still, I enjoyed reading about Dumbo (my daughter’s first favorite), and Cinderella (one of the few I saw as a child). My other favorite sections include those about Sleeping Beauty, Mulan (also my daughter’s favorites). I was glad I stayed with the book to read about Frozen,(which even I voluntarily watched as an adult).

What’s Not So Great About The Queens of Animation

The last few chapters of The Queens of Animation are a bit confusing because the story gets complicated and major characters disappear suddenly.

I’m glad Holt pushed through to finish her story with Frozen, the first Disney animated feature that was directed by a woman. However, the transition between the story of the original women and the story of Frozen is disjointed and awkward…and not a terrible thing to skip, if you are so inclined.

Is The Queens of Animation Book Club worthy?

In a nutshell, yes. A strong central narrative, for the most part, ties the book together. The information in the book is likely new to all but the most die hard fans. On the other hand, there is enough to interest those with only a passing interest in Disney films.

A Personal Response

My affection for Disney products is connected to some nostalgia for my own childhood years and some for my daughter’s. I am not what you would call an “adult fan”. In my entire life, I’ve been to Disney World in Florida once…in high school. I lived in Tokyo for 6 years, and I only went to Tokyo Disney and Tokyo Disney Sea one time each.

My point is, I enjoyed this book. I appreciate Disney’s accomplishments and contributions. I also learned about art and more about how exploitative unfair hiring practices are. Seeing the past helps me see the continued biases we encounter in the workplace.

Treatment of Women as Disney

Some of the artifacts from Disney show hiring practices that might seem shockingly biased to the modern reader. In reality, Disney was unique in that they hired women at all; most animation companies didn’t.

About the Featured Photo

A 3 story mural of children and American western wildlife by Mary Blair
You might recognize the style of this mural at Disney’s Contemporary Resort at Disneyland as she also designed the “It’s a Small World” ride and contributed to many Disney films. Photo via Wikimedia Commons attributed to Jared on Flickr.

More About Women at Work from The Lois Level

If you never read Hidden Figures, about how women contributed to space exploration, it’s time!

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