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Michael Dudok De Wit- A Life In Animation [Book Review]

Michael Dudok De Wit – A Life in Animation is a hybrid of a book. It’s partly a critical biography by author Andrijana Ruzic, and it’s partly the author’s own extended interview with De Wit, with much of the story presented in the artist’s own words. De Wit first won acclaim in the field of animated festival short films. Then he made the leap to a modestly commercial, critically lionised feature, The Red Turtle, without betraying his sensibilities. It’s an unusual career path, taken by only a few other artists such as Nick Park and Sylvain Chomet.

The first half of the book goes through De Wit’s early career, and on to his personal short films: The Monk and the Fish (1994), the Oscar-winning Father and Daughter (2000) and the abstract The Aroma of Tea (2006). Naturally, there’s a lot on The Red Turtle, released in 2016. That’s followed by a series of long appendices, including De Wit’s comments on various subjects, from the practicalities of animating commercials for clients, to the deep philosophy informing his work. 

This section recalls the free-ranging discussion of Hayao Miyazaki’s book Starting Point; the philosophical entries on “Longing” and “Spirituality” are crucial. There’s also an assemblage of comments by colleagues, fellow animators and critics, though De Wit’s own comments are most interesting.  It’s a very useful guide to De Wit’s work, which isn’t to say it’s a smooth read. Ruzic makes many strong points and observations, but her commentary often reads awkwardly; the text badly needs an edit. (De Wit’s comments read fine, however.) It doesn’t look good when one of the most famous musicians at Disney is called “Alan Mencken” (he’s Menken). For some inexplicable reason many of De Wit’s own comments start in the middle of paragraphs without speech marks, so you can’t tell where Ruzic’s comments end and De Wit’s quotes start. It’s not as bad it sounds – you can usually tell pretty much where the quote begins, and many of the quotes have their own indented paragraphs. But it’s still terribly sloppy.

Yet there’s really interesting stuff here. There’s a vivid description of the artist’s wonderful childhood, which has a massive impact on his films; De Wit’s closeness to animals, for example, and the vastness of the flat Dutch polder landscape where he grew up. “When you cycle there, you are very aware of the sky and the horizon,” De Wit says. “Faraway in the distance, you spot a tiny profile of a poplar tree or a church bell tower. All this space was exhilarating.”

The account of De Wit’s early career will chime with many, perhaps most animators, with much wandering and uncertainty. De Wit began his arts studies in Switzerland, at Geneva’s Beaux Arts. Then he encountered art animation – he singles out Yuri Norstein’s The Heron and the Crane as a sublime influence. (This was 1974, five years before Tale of Tales would make Norstein widely known.) De Wit moved to England and joined an animation course in Farnham, Surrey, to be mentored by the great Bob Godfrey.

However, as the book makes clear, De Wit’s early career had frustrations too. His graduation film, The Interview, should have been entered at the Ottawa Animation Festival, but it was left out because of an organiser’s mistake. He freelanced for a time in Spain, working on a cartoon of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that you might recall from childhood, but he suffered loneliness and self-doubt. He approached Italy’s Bruno Bozetto (Allegro non Troppo), but there were no openings. De Wit was only saved by an invitation from a new London animation studio, Richard Purdum Productions, which he joined in 1980.

He would work there on and off for a dozen years, mostly on commercials – the book’s account of this time is lively and fascinating. Away from Purdum, De Wit freelanced on the raucous Canadian feature Heavy Metal, about as far from his own sensibility as it was possible to get. “My animation there was terrible,” De Wit confesses. “I did my best, but for me, my animation had no soul.” He also freelanced for Passion Pictures and Richard Williams Animation.

It was at Purdum, though, that De Wit worked for Disney – he was involved in the version of Beauty and the Beast that was developed in London and later scrapped. Or at least officially scrapped. The book includes the eye-opening claim that De Wit’s storyboards for a “chase sequence through the forest” found their way unacknowledged into Disney’s final version. Notably, this claim doesn’t come from De Wit but from Richard Purdum’s wife and producer, Jill Thomas. De Wit’s own comments about his Disney experience are positive – he said it was “fascinating” to adjust to Disney’s unified mindset. But it wasn’t for him.

Soon after, he pitched an animation idea, about monks sweeping a yard, to Britain’s BBC and Channel 4. It was rejected. Then he developed the sweeping idea into Tom Sweep, pitched as a TV series. The Purdum studio produced his wonderfully funny pilot, but it didn’t find a backer. Once more, De Wit wondered whether to abandon his animation career.

Salvation this time came from a French studio, Folimage, which was running an artists-in-residence programme. The book describes Folimage as a bid to “move the axis of French animation outside of Paris and its confusion, high living costs, competition and hectic lifestyle into the slow living and working pace of the city of Valence.”

It was in this quieter environment that De Wit made his landmark film, The Monk and the Fish. It begins as a funny cartoon comedy, a monastic Road Runner, but it slides into very different territory at the end – and this territory, De Wit specifies, is why he made the film at all. The book delves into De Wit’s multiple inspirations, from Chaplin to Zen Buddhist art, to the Renaissance theme La Folia which defines the film’s rhythms and repetitions.

The book goes on to similarly close analyses of Father and Daughter and Red Turtle and a shorter discussion of De Wit’s lesser-known Aroma of Tea, where he strove to boil his philosophy down to abstraction but lost much of his audience. (That included festival juries – the film won no prizes, in contrast to its garlanded predecessors.) I confess I could make little of the film myself without reading the background account in the book.

Rukic’s commentary is sometimes compellingly written – the Turtle chapter is especially strong – but the constantly laudatory tone is monotonous. Oddly, the book occasionally throws in negative comments about De Wit’s work from other writers. Animation festival director Chris Robinson complains about the “icky crescendo” of the music in Father and Daughter. Animation scholar Olga Bobrowska gripes about Turtle’s “New Age” ecology and the “misogynistically” dominated figure of the woman in the film. Rukic quotes these criticisms without discussing them, which could have animated the text - though I think Robinson’s comment, at least, is just silly.



Tom Arden is an animation journalist based in the UK.