Man, I wish that I had the courage that Heidi Guedel does.
I mean, I have read a lot of Hollywood bios and autobiographies in my time. But I've never read anything that compares to "Animatrix: How Laughter Saved My Life" (iUniverse, Inc. September 2003). In this tell-all book, Heidi really lays herself bare.
For those of you who don't know: Heidi Guedel was one of the very first women to break through "the glass ceiling" at Disney Feature Animation. She was the first females to become a full-fledged animator at the studio. Where she worked on such 1970s era projects as "Robin Hood," "The Rescuers," "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too," "Pete's Dragon," "The Small One" and "The Fox and the Hound."
Okay, so maybe some of those films aren't what most people would consider to be Disney classics. But that honestly doesn't matter, folks. What DOES matter is that the 1970s was still a really fascinating time to be working at Walt Disney Productions. It was a time when the last of the "Nine Old Men" were still plying their trade. More importantly, it was the era when WDFA's "Young Turks" (people like Glen Keane and Don Bluth) were just getting their careers underway.
And Heidi had a front seat -- Hell, she was actually a participant -- for one of the more memorable events in Disney history. That day in September 1979 when Don Bluth leads 12 other Disney animators and effects artists out the door to start up a new animation studio.
If "Animatrix: How Laughter Saved My Life" has a flaw, it's Guedel chooses to end her story here. Just as Don Bluth, John Pomeroy, Gary Goldman, Sally Voorheis et al are exiting Disney to set up their own studio. The story that follows (Particularly given that September of this year is the 25th anniversary of the great WDFA walk-out) I'm sure would be one hell of a read.
But maybe that tale can wait 'til "Animatrix II." For now, I'm perfectly happy with Heidi's first book. Which features literally hundreds of great behind-the-scenes tales of what it was really like to work at Walt Disney Feature Animation in the 1970s.
Of course, before you get to that part of the book, you have to plow through 236 pages of really horrifying stuff. By that I mean: Heidi Guedel seems to have had a childhood that even Christina Crawford would have considered cruel. There are stories in "Animatrix" about child abuse that is so extreme, parents & stepparents that behaved so irresponsibly that it's a wonder that Heidi is still alive today.
It's this aspect of Guedel's autobiography that (I think) may put some people off. The stories in the first 2/3rds of "Animatrix" are so filled with hateful behavior by supposedly powerful & intelligent people in Hollywood that reading about what they did to this poor girl may actually turn your stomach.
But hang in there, folks. After reading about all that Heidi had to put up with while she was growing up, I have to admit that I eventually came to admire Guedel's coping skills, her survival instincts. Which (perhaps) explains why she persevered and ultimately succeeded against the "Old Boys Network" at Disney.
Let me say this much, folks. You're never going to think about Walt Disney Feature Animation the same way after you read "Animatrix." There are some really hilarious but pretty embarrassing stories included in Heidi's autobiography. And many of these stories involve members of the "Nine Old Men" as well as some of the more revered folks working in animation today.
Some might consider these stories scandalous. Me? I think it helps to humanize these folks whose names we've seen listed in Disney movie credits for the 30 years.
And let's not forget that Heidi gives as good as she gets. Guedel has no problem talking about her own spectacular screw-ups. Like the time she accidentally left one of Ollie Johnston's completed scenes for "The Rescuers" on the roof of her car, then drove off the lot ... scattering over 300 drawings of Bernard, Bianca and Evenrude all over Burbank.
There's also Heidi's unrequited crush on Don Bluth. Or the time she arrived for her job interview at Disney and almost got attacked by the Siberian tiger that was featured in "The World's Greatest Athlete."
Hell, this book is worth picking up just for all the great caricatures that Guedel included in "Animatrix." Which show such twisted things as Winnie the Pooh and Tigger (a la "The Exorcist") being possessed by the devil.
If you're a fan of warts-and-all stories about the Walt Disney Company and/or you just enjoy reading stories about harrowing Hollywood childhoods, then you really should pick up a copy of "Animatrix: How Laughter Saved My Life." It really is a fascinating read.
And Heidi? If you actually happen to read this: If you ever want to get around to writing about what happened AFTER you left Disney, when you and the rest of the "Bluthies" went off to finish "Banjo the Woodpile Cat" as well as "The Secret of NIMH" ... I'm sure that that would a hell of a book too.
Eh. It's just a suggestion ... Just like I'm suggesting that JHM readers go out and snag a copy of "Animatrix" right now!