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Milt Kahl is Even Grumpier Than You Thought

Milt Kahl

If you read just one thing today, make it this newly released 1976 interview with Disney animator Milt Kahl conducted by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray. Hearing Kahl speak his mind brings the past alive in a way that few history books can, and sheds light on the divisions and rivalries between the golden age Disney animators. When the interview took place, Kahl had recently left the Disney studio after forty-plus years and he doesn’t mince words:

“The way that I feel about it is that my performance in The Rescuers is good. The only thing is that you know that this picture is going to be mediocre. It has a few high spots, but it’s full of bad taste that is, as I like to put it, tempered by bad judgment. That’s kind of a lousy way to put it, but I feel that way. I’m really rather bitter about the set-up, about some of the people who I thought considered that we were working together, and I find that we really weren’t. Here I am, a person at the height of my powers, and I feel there’s not a place for me anymore. I don’t want to be involved; I can’t fight this thing. And there certainly isn’t a place for me anywhere else in this business.”

  • A+ for the funny post title. Love seeing the Br’er Rabbit sketches. And funny how Milt refers to the characters as “the rabbit,” “the Duck,” “the bear,” etc.

  • Wow. That’s exactly how I feel about fx work.

  • jordan reichek


    Now, now. I’m your friend and fan. How is this “new” news?

    If Milt were alive today, he’d be considered a disgruntled heretic and wouldn’t be hired by anyone.

    Man, if he witnessed what’s been happening with our craft today, my guess is he’d be sick. I was lucky enough to be personally acquainted with a lot of the old bastards to make that guess.

    All offense aside…today Milt would be considered a ‘radical’….”Animation Al Qaeda”.

    And…don’t think for a minute I think any less of him. He was a pure talent without a captain after Walt died.

    As far as the ‘Walt’ years? Where amazing talent flourished without (outside the film itself) politics?

    As the greatest, Ward Kimball said when questioned by the ‘new generation’ about ‘The Good Years’, “You’re late. Walt’s dead. You missed it.”

    Artists like Milt and Ward are gone. Walt’s gone.

    I’m sad about that, but, time for new greatness.

    • “As far as the ‘Walt’ years? Where amazing talent flourished without (outside the film itself) politics?”

      The Walt years, when a frankly dull director (Charles Nichols) had an eight-year lock on turning Mickey Mouse into an inconsistent combo of mawkish manchild and grumpy parent?

      The later short cartoons certainly play like there were politics involved.

      • jordan reichek

        Well, you’re basically correct, David.

        For the sake of brevity when commenting on a thread, I sometimes generalize.

        I’m aware things weren’t all rainbows and puppy nipples, but, overall, if you got along with Walt, didn’t buck his plans and had talent, you could flourish at his studio.

        Walt had his share of ‘bad cops’ in-between him and the staff but there are so many examples of now famous Disney artists who quantum leaped in ability because of the arena he created at the studio.

        That’s what I meant.

        If Milt was the studio today…hell, if Walt was there today, they’d both get a swift boot out the door.

  • Karl Hungus

    Milt Kahl understood animation more than probably anyone else of the golden age. He was the perfect mix of artistic talent and impeccable judgment.

    • Jane

      Don’t forget that killer personality.

  • Ron

    Is there anyone who knows what he’s referring to more specifically? It’s very candid but still vague enough that someone who wasn’t in the know wouldn’t be sure exactly what he’s referencing here. Still it’s very interesting to read.

  • Isaac

    Where would animation history be without Michael Barrier and Milton Gray?

  • david

    “Kahl: I wasn’t in on that. Kimball was a unique talent, because he was always completely out of sympathy with our features; he was a hell of a talent, but I think he was always shorts-oriented. He was a Chuck Jones with talent. In fact, he got Chuck Jones over to the studio, on Sleeping Beauty, and he bombed out. Kimball was always kind of a baggy-pants comic, and he was unable to do things where the character was believable. He was good at making fun of things, doing something that was satirical. He didn’t have the feel for getting into a character’s personality and making him believable that Frank or Ollie or I did.”

    hahahah Milt Kahl hates cartoons (caricaturing, exaggerating and satirizing). Sadly for him more people remember Chuck’s renditions of the Looney tunes than they do the rehashed and recycled Kahl style that is prevalent in every disney feature since the 50’s with the blustery fat guy, and or the “im in love” twitch, the swinging arms and overly broad movements. He’s still a great animator, but he sure does have an ego.

    this idea that if you do hyper-realism in animation it is somehow better is still a problem today with CG. They are afraid to simplify or do graphic stuff. well, one day hand drawn cartoony cartoons will be appreciated again. until then it’s weirdly designed rango’s, princess and the frog 3, and weird indie hipster lumps with noodle designs.

    • Karl Hungus

      I think he was saying that his expertise lies in producing a character with believable emotion(which really isn’t present in the shorts of that day). You can’t make a compelling feature without that ability.
      That was his bread and butter and he fiercely defended the standards of the job. Don’t attack him for it. Chuck Jones has been just as critical of those who couldn’t grasp the satire of shorts.

      • david

        I suppose it’s subjective. I think if his style wasn’t copied ten times over it would still be poignant. He does make characters believable in that he’s an amazing draftsman and can animate super difficult designs with ease (shere khan). But whether it is “believable emotion” or not is a different story. In many ways his acting for characters (at the time) would be seen as innovative or original, but now when redone (poorly) it seems like a parody of itself. Also a lot of disney acting is sometimes afraid to do less. They put superfluous movements and Disney’s favorite: doing a bit of “business.” I think a Chuck Jones held drawing of a character after a gag might emit the same type of believable emotion. again, subjective.

        Didn’t someone say, great animation cannot save a bad story. I think it might be true in Milt’s case. Either way i still respect him as animator and I like his stuff a lot (in moderation).

    • David said: “Milt Kahl hates cartoons (caricaturing, exaggerating and satirizing). […] This idea that if you do hyper-realism in animation it is somehow better is still a problem today with CG.”

      While I wholeheartedly agree with that last line, I don’t think that Kahl was saying what you’re saying he was saying. In fact, he addressed this idea specifically (in this interview) with the following quote:

      “Believability of our characters is what’s important. I don’t mean realism, I mean believability.”

      If I’m reading it all correctly, Kahl wasn’t saying Kimball’s worked lacked photo-realism (or something approximating it), he was bitching about Kimball’s preference for jokes over serious sentiment. Me, personally? I love both. Lots and LOTS of both!

    • TsimoneTseTse

      Wow, that is the first I’ve read anything where Milt gave a positve spin on Ward’s true talent. I can see how Ward’s great contributions stood apart from the style of the other artists (Cinderella, Slepping Beauty) but nobody could do “serious/straight” like Kahl. In fact, what was the most off-kilter piece that Kahl animated?

  • Read the whole thing. Glad I did. Gives a different perspective on things from ‘The Illusion of Life’ book I read. Milt Kahl is a bit like the Kanye West of the animation world.

    I can empathize totally with his views and frustrations, I can also empathize with the frustrations of those who may have worked with him. I know a musician who I think has a similar character. He’s particularly talented in music, but a total nightmare to collaborate with.

    • “Milt Kahl is a bit like the Kanye West of the animation world.”

      Hilarious! Can someone please re-write Kahl’s epitaph to include this phrase?

  • See even disney’s top boy knew they were making wackness. hahahahaha, and the company still hasn’t learnt. Poor old Milt

  • This was covered in John Canemaker’s book, so this is not that surprising to me.

  • Kevin Martinez

    At one point, Milt Kahl actually says that Woolie Reitherman’s reuse of earlier animation in his films was no cheaper than doing new animation from scratch.

    Floyd Norman went onto Mark Mayerson’s blog and made this exact argument, but was harshly dismissed for being out of the loop. Glad to hear from someone who was there.

  • Why is this grumpy?
    The Rescuers isn’t an especially good film.

    • Yes I was going to say, sounds more honest and truthful to his observations in his and his peer’s work than grumpy to me.

      • Whether you cover it in sugar or vinegar, truthful is truthful, and that Milt Kahl is! And also very difficult to dispute. It’s like what Milt said about Walt Disney – you know the guy’s put a lot of stock into what he says, and he is willing to demonstrate literal and intellectual evidence to back it up.

      • Mark

        Yeah, even as I child I found that film unwatchable. Loved the sequel though.

  • Buzz Potamkin

    Oh, you youngsters! In the spring of 1973, prior to the Disney 50th Anniversary Retrospective at Lincoln Center and MoMA, Milt Kahl gave a talk at SVA. He had no idea who was in the audience (in the sense of Disney flacks, press, etc.), yet as the evening progressed he was strongly critical of Woolie and the then current top folk at the studio. He disparaged the contemporary work, particularly Woolie’s Florida joke in “Sword in the Stone” and the then soon-to-be-released “Robin Hood.” He was honest with the audience, and a little on the defense as he appeared to understand that Walt’s image was (to put it mildly) not that good in NY. One should remember that back then “to Mickey Mouse [anything]” was a very pejorative insult.

  • You have to wonder what it is in a man’s character that would make him seem so over-the-top “egotistical”. There has to be some kind of balance, like for instance maybe it comes from a deep sense of insecurity. But with Kahl, I don’t think it’s that. I think he was good enough, and enough of a genius and visionary, to realize how inadequate he was (or anyone is) at fulfilling animation’s potential. But he at least was able to glimpse what COULD be done. And his “egotism” was simply a way of challenging someone — anyone — to come join him on the mountaintop and get a glimpse of the art form’s daunting and limitless potential. And therein lies humility.

  • Milt Kahl reminds many of us of our father, or grandfather. Kahl came from a poor family, and according to Canemaker’s book, was probably ill and malnourished as a child. He achieved recognition quite young, and in his own mind achieved success in spite of his past. For many he epitomizes that combination of relentless hard work and rare talent. A tough-as-nails persona like his is even more off-putting to people now in our softer, more empathetic age, yet it his allure as an artist remains intact because he’s got this dichotomy – he’s your surly blue-collar grandfather, but he’s ALSO one of the most prolific, hardworking, and talented animators of the 20th century. It’s humbling, because he shows off both the dramatic vices and virtues of his intense persona. Like my grandfather, I think Kahl made up for his insecurities about his unflattering roots by comparing his skills and work habits to the more “elite and privileged” of his peers. People certainly may not like him or even respect his mannerisms at times, but by God, was he sincere, consistent (in voice and craft) and dedicated to his art form. I’ll go out on a limb and say in spite of the flaws, he deserves every bit of respect he gets.

    I agree with the statements in the article about Ward and Milt as “less sincere, more satirical”. They are the polars counterpoints to Frank and Ollie. I love the volcanic chemistry of Ward and Milt’s work on “Pecos Bill” and “The Brave Engineer”. The breakneck clever humor and caricature combined with technical animation superiority, are a real entertainment thrill.

  • Speaking the truth doesn’t mean someone is ‘grumpy’.
    He’s just being honest. Wish more were like him.

    • Agreed. It was actually a refreshing read too.

  • jordan reichek

    Not to get too off subject, but re-reading the interview again today, does it piss anyone off that “Song of the South” is STILL not released???

    It’s my favorite animation by Milt, hands down. So many have probably never seen it.

    • It’s terrifically entertaining animation, that’s for sure! I’d love to see those scenes in high definition.

  • Ignatz the Brick Pitcher

    Kahl sounds like a man whose been through the ringer and never saw his day to shine as an animator. Poor guy. Every empire has a hierarchy. Disney is no exception!

    Most of us are spokes in the wheel. But, without the spokes, the wheel doesn’t roll. LOOL. Hats off to Kahl…a fellow spoke. We recognize his significance and individual contribution to shaping the history of animation.

  • dbenson

    A lot of animation interviews — or talks with any serious professionals, when you get down to it — can be boiled down to “Love the work. Hate the business. Once in a great while we pry them apart.”

  • Milt was a brilliant animator and had a right to be pissed. Once out of the studio, Kahl could freely speak his mind and did so. Grumpy? That’s B.S.! Milt was demanding but a joy to work for.

    By the way, I agree with Kahl on “Sword in the Stone.” I hate that dumb ass Aloha shirt gag as well.

  • I really wish this happened more often. I would like to see more criticism of films and studios from the people who actually work in the business.

  • Mister Twister

    I did not find anything wrong with the first Rescuers.

    Why do ppl dislike it?

  • Toonio

    Anybody that is not management feels the same way. Your contributions are not welcome just because you are not that high in the chain. And the only way to bring attention to yourself is through a mistake.

    Remember, your accomplishments are there because you are paid good enough. And that’s for all corporations around the world folks!

  • Randy Koger

    FYI folks…..the Sword in the Stone “comment” wasn’t a Florida gag.
    Merlin says “Blow me to Bermuda!”, and Archimedes comments on it to Wart.
    Merlin doesn’t come back with the flowered shirt from Florida, it’s Bermuda.
    Just wanted to clear that up.
    There’s no Florida joke in SITS.

    • Greg Ehrbar

      What about the gag Leonard Maltin mentions in “The Disney Films,” that Sword in the Stone ends with a spoof of a then-current margarine commercial? I was too young to remember that when I saw the film in ’63, and it must have been cut in subsequent reissues. The film has always seemed to have an abrupt ending, perhaps due to editing out this dated gag.

      I’m guessing it was a spoof of the Imperial Margarine commercials of the day. Does seem odd that by the sixties, when it was common practice for a Disney feature to appear every few years in reissues, that such a thing would have been done, much less considered.

      Does anyone remember what that gag was like?

  • Huh? I thought that Kahl was often a “Grumpy” person. He usually made rants about being assigned to humans, for instance – Prince Philip.

  • Very interesting. Like learning that Tytla tried to return to the studio in the 60’s but couldn’t get in, it’s disheartening to hear that Kahl believed that he was at the “height of his powers”, and felt he had no place to make an impact. That sucks. Those are two of the most inspiring animators ever! Also, interesting to hear who he worked under as an inbetweener. It’s interesting to hear his views about rehashing animation. I think that contributed to later animation being so diluted-because so many younger artists drew inspiration from all of the older films. Little did we know that our emulating clips we’ve seen, were probably a step removed from the original context. Also interesting that he was opposed to Don Graham’s teachings-I’ve never heard anything critical about Graham. To say that Bluth might have been the best director to lead the studio at that time is…interesting. That statement puts some of his judgement into question for me. I also wonder about “Jackson” whom he talked about and spoke highly of. What did Jackon direct exactly?

  • Burt Nelson

    Wilfred Jackson was one of Disney’s most prolific cartoon directors, who worked on Mickey Mouse shorts, Snow White, Pinocchio, two sequences in Fantasia and a ton more. He was respected by Walt and enjoyed one of the longest and richest careers at Mousechwitz.

  • John

    I didn’t feel Milt was grumpy at all.

  • There is a famous anecdote of the time, that when Milt retired after Rescuers, Ralph Bakshi called him up and offered him a job on Lord of the Rings. Milt’s response was ” No thanks. If I wanted to keep doing shit, I would have stayed at Disneys.”

    • David

      That is hilarious, and Milt would’ve been one of the few talented animators in the medium who could tell Ralph Bakshi where he could stick his movies!

      I heard the Dale Baer interview awhile back on the Animation Podcast. He described Bakshi as a major hothead who would yell and scream at employees at the drop of a hat.

      I guess a person like Ollie Johnston is the opposite end of the spectrum from guys like Milt Kahl, Ralph Bakshi, or Richard Williams. All I’ve ever heard about Ollie is he was extremely nice, helpful, and encouraging. I also heard Marc Davis was hard working, but very kind. I admire Davis a great deal. Not only was he great at animation, but he made a great Imagineer as well. :)

  • Jorgen Klubien

    Milt is completely right. And he sure earned the right to be critical of the films he worked on. I believe Woolie, Frank and Ollie must have teamed up leaving Milt with little influence on the films. But what really happened was… no Bill Peet. No, Walt and no Bill Peet, and they were lost.

  • Wow! Great interview. I never got to formally meet Milt, but I saw him at the Studio a few times before he retired. It would have been an honor to work with. Probably terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

  • ClassicalAnimator

    Milt to me has always been the most critical thinker of the group. He was the best but he pushed himself the hardest and had the most OCD about good work. I would have loved to work under him.