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Ideas/CommentaryWard Kimball

Ward Kimball Explains to a Hollywood Producer Why An Animated Film About A Snail Is A Stupid Idea

Flawed film premises weren’t invented in the last decade.

In 1977, a gentleman named Lorenzo Music was developing an animated feature called Simon and Miranda, which starred a snail named Simon and his love interest, Miranda the caterpillar. Music had successfully developed and produced snail-free TV shows like The Bob Newhart Show and Rhoda, and needed advice if his latest idea was worthwhile.

For guidance, Music reached out to Ward Kimball, who had spent nearly forty years as a director, writer and animator at Disney, and had excellent instincts about entertainment. Kimball, of course, was also responsible for creating the most successful insect in animation history—Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket—and though snails aren’t technically insects, for Music’s purposes, they were close enough.

Music sent the script he’d developed to Ward Kimball through a mutual friend, John Gibbons. Ward was unimpressed. Or to put it more bluntly, he thought it was a plain awful concept. Never one to mince words, Ward ripped apart Music’s idea in acerbic fashion with an extended riff on why Americans hate snails. He ended with a warning to Lorenzo to spend his money on “something besides snails.” Printed for the first time ever is Ward’s letter to Lorenzo Music. Click to enlarge:

Ward Kimball letter. Ward Kimball letter.

Lorenzo Music was a smart man. He listened to Ward’s advice and the world was momentarily spared from having to endure an entire animated feature starring a snail.

Music, whose response to Ward is recorded below, set aside his hard-shelled dreams and went on to perform numerous voices in animated cartoons including Ralph the All-Purpose Animal in Twice Upon a Time, Tummi Gummi in Gummi Bears, and most memorably, the lasagna-loving cat Garfield.

Lorenzo Music letter.
  • Platynews

    A Snail would use a soft and sluggish delivery, like every slug does.
    In the same way that a frog would be like a frog and don’t dance at all

  • Roberto Severino

    Ward Kimball was such a sage. It would have been great if he was still alive today so he can comment about what’s currently going on in the animation industry.

    • Chuck R.

      I would agree with the “sage” descriptive, except:
      1. Ratatouille, a movie about icky rats, was pretty damn entertaining
      2. His use of the word “fag” was pretty jarring.

      • Roberto Severino

        I actually didn’t really notice the last part, but in that case, you’re completely correct, though I doubt Ward even knew that people were going to read these letters over 30 years later.

        • Riu Tinubu

          Fag was still a put down work in the 70s. And quite a bit of time before that too. The people saying it just had an easier time getting away with it.

  • Valledor

    Snails! Yuck! Give me puppies, kittens, unicorns and other cute furry critters. BS!

    • Chris Sobieniak

      And you see why not every species on the planet can adapt themselves to cartoons that easily.

  • Alex Irish

    Oh well, the snails in Turbo aren’t THAT slow

  • kmuk

    Kimball was such a funny guy, except for this part: “whoever heard of a fag snail” yeaaahh, considering the letter was written in the late 70’s that is a pretty nasty joke.

    • AmidAmidi

      Ward was far ahead of his time on every social issue and had no problems with anyone’s sexuality. By today’s standards, the language may be politically incorrect, but the letter is from a different era and needs to be viewed in its proper context. For example, Terry Southern wrote a satirical for “The Realist” in the Sixties called “Terry Southern Interviews a Faggot Male Nurse.” Try getting that article published today.

      • kmuk

        I agree that Kimball was very progressive and that the comment is clearly satirical (specially the last part about snails lacking female hips), but your suggestion of seeing this in its historical context makes it even worse. That’s why I mentioned the date. Harvey Milk became elected for public office in 1977 (and killed the next year), the HIV epidemic was just a few years away. That paragraph may have been funny in the 50’s or 60’s, but in the context of the late 70’s is just jarring and not very funny IMHO.

        Still, a very fascinating piece Amid.

        • AmidAmidi

          “Harvey Milk became elected for public office in 1977 (and killed the next year), the HIV epidemic was just a few years away.”

          Yea, it’s a shame that Ward couldn’t see into the future. If he’d known about the HIV epidemic before the rest of the planet did, he could have written a more sensitive letter to Lorenzo Music in 1977.

          • Chuck R.

            kmuk may be off on the HIV comment, Amid, but I grew up in the 70’s and “fag” meant pretty much the same thing then as it does now —it was a put-down.

            You’re right that back in the 70’s anyone could get away with a derogatory remark about gays, but it’s still a slur.
            You are demonstrating a typical tautology of liberal media: If a progressive uses a slur, it’s not really a slur, because liberals don’t use slurs. If a similar letter were found by a person like Nixon or Ford, you can imagine the response: “how typical”

          • Barrett

            I think complaints about Ward’s use of the term are valid. It’s not a liberal/conservative thing, it’s just a matter of recognizing that this is one more reminder that for all of the good aspects of the past, there was a lot of ingrained biases and ignorance about the facts of minorities’ lives.

            At the same time, it is important to remember that anti-gay slurs were pretty much acceptable to most people, even those with no particular hatred toward gays. It wasn’t a word people would use in polite company, and if you were a child you’d be chastised for using it, but I’d say it was pretty casually common. People’s ideas about “respecting the other” mainly revolved around black and white in America. People would throw around chink, wetback and jap as casually as they would fag.

            Trying to judge someone’s character from the Monday Morning Quarterback position 40 years later is iffy at best. Plenty of people of good character saw no problem with what we today see as clumsy, hurtful stereotypes. I think it was the 80s and 90s when there was a really national push to end stereotyping of all people, in the civil rights era and just after, black people and women were the only “protected classes” on most people’s minds, for better or worse.

          • Ant G

            “The word with reference to homosexuality was used as early as in the 1914 Jackson and Hellyer A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang, with Some Examples of Common Usages which listed the following example under the word, drag:[12]
            “All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight.”
            The word was also used by a character in Claude McKay’s 1928 novel Home to Harlem, indicating that it was used during the Harlem Renaissance. Specifically, one character says that he cannot understand:
            “a bulldyking woman and a faggoty man”

            /wiki quote

            way before the 1970’s. Ward knew what he was saying, and someone who “had no problem with anyone’s sexuality” would be more conscious of his jokes. That’s like using n-er in a distasteful joke and saying “its ok, I have black friends!”

          • Doz Hewson

            The word with reference to homosexuality was in use a hell of a lot earlier than 1914 – the MIDDLE AGES, to be exact. The word “faggot” first meant “a sticks bundle”, especially one utilized to BURN PEOPLE. AT THE STAKE. GAYS were once BURNED AT THE STAKE. (In the mid-1980s TIMOTHY LEE murder, was the Brother burned, in addition to being hung? I no longer precisely recall that having happened.) The IMPLEMENT once used to LITERALLY BURN Gays has, over a few centuries, morphed into a WORD that EMOTIONALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY BURNS them.

      • Jeff

        “Snails are considered to be hermaphrodites. This means that every snail will have both male and female reproductive organs. This is especially consistent among land snails and most marine snails.”

        Before anyone gets their panties/undies in a bunch, do some research. I just did! Perhaps Ward knew this already….

        • Ant G

          so snails being hermaphrodites makes the joke of calling a snail character a derogatory name ok?

  • AmidAmidi

    I want to hear the rest of this story!

  • EHH

    I wouldn’t call “Prince and the Pauper” horrible. A bit lacking but not horrible.

  • Ironhorse

    Despite what some have commented, I find the exchange of letters to be classy.
    On the side, Kimball did some fun artwork in the toy train club newsletters. Only Ward could make a tunnel funny!

  • Tim Hodge

    It occurs to me that this letter might a bit more tongue-in-cheek than it was received. After all, Ward designed a cricket that didn’t resemble a cricket in the least. Plus, the crew thought they would have a lot of trouble with Kaa, the animated snake, in The Jungle Book (as recounted in “The Illusion of Life”). He knew there is a way around everything; you can make anything charming.
    Of course, I could be wrong.

    • the Gee

      I don’t know if you can make *anything* (appealing and) charming.
      Anyone can try but it really does depend on how it is received, too.

      The snake in “Jungle Book” did have an advantage of size in relation to the other characters. A snail or small bug would best work if all of the characters were that small. I’m not sure what Music really had in mind for the title characters but it doesn’t sound like it would work like the Smurfs did in those two recent movies. They are just big enough and plentiful enough as human-based characters that their size is not as important.

      But, some things and creatures…are tough. It also matters that whomever does think they can be made charming can present them as charming or appealing. If something goofed up/ disturbing is done with them then chances are good all bets are off.

      Ward’s letter showed that he has a problem with snails so yeah, he’s got a bias. And, chances are good he couldn’t make an appealing snail character because of that bias. So, it sort of cuts both ways: those who can’t get into a character would create bad ones and those who can get into bad characters too much may not be able to see what the audience will accept.

      I don’t mean to come across a dork about this. But, I am kind of dorky.

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  • Matthew Broussard

    Don’t leave us hanging, what did he say?

    • Funkybat

      I’ve never heard that story, but I suspect that the criticisms would have less to do with the art than they would with the overall story and gag ideas.

      I got to meet Ollie Johnston in the late 90s, and it happened to be right after he had just finished watching the VHS copy of “Hercules” that the studio had sent him. He commented that the character animation in it was all well and fine, but that you just don’t end up caring that much about the characters themselves, and therefore have no investment in the outcome of the story. That launched him on a lecture about the importance of story and getting your audience to empathize with/root for/root against etc. the characters in the film.

      • Matthew Broussard

        He was right about Hercules. Its an entertaining movie, but its hard to care about the characters for some reason.

  • Ant G

    Yeah, and a movie with Rats would never do well either because people have hated rats for centuries! Especially people in cities. But wait, Ratatouille was a huge success. Raccoons aren’t exactly the suburbs favorite either, yet Pocahantas’ pet was adorable. The catterpillar in Bugs, also adorable. Turns out it’s not the animal or insect (that is anthropomorphized so much that no one actually thinks of them as the real pests), it’s all about having a great story.

    And Ward, use your imagination. The shape of Lumiere and Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast didn’t stop the animators from being able to suggest them having legs and hips to sing and dance. A snail is too slow and has no hips? Are we not talking about animation?

    This is distateful, that a person who’s status has gone over his head, would bring down another artist from pursuing his dream because he personally, based on his childhood killing snails, doesn’t care for it. Animating snails is anti-American! And he says it in such a dogmatic manner too. Boo ward, get off your high horse.

    I love how everyone is ok with the fact another artist decided not to make his dream movie because the God of animation, Ward Kimball, told him not to, it wouldn’t “sell”. Hear that kids, don’t pursue your dreams! Aim low!

    • zac leck

      I really dislike this sentiment. So what if Ward didn’t like the idea, he’s allowed to. Do you like every single animated movie ever? Each one was someone’s idea, are you afraid to hurt their feelings by being honest? Was he being harsh, maybe, but that’s just who Ward is. Milt Kahl was crazy harsh and also one of the very best animators to ever work in the business. If you can’t handle some criticism you shouldn’t be in the business, and either this guy ended up agreeing with Ward and stopped pursuing it, or he was so hurt by Ward not liking it that he gave up. If he gave up on the idea because of one person’s opinion, he wouldn’t have been able to handle the criticisms of the public had the film been produced Because not everyone is gonna like it no matter how good it is.

      • IJK

        Ward didn’t like his idea on a bad principle and flawed theory that has since been proven incorrect by dozens of animated films from the past two decades.

        And he stated this theory in such a matter-of-fact way, that when a young,aspiring artist/storyteller looks up to someone who’s basically god-tier in their profession says “That’s a crappy idea, don’t do it!”, you really think they’re NOT going to take that as law?

        And art is one of the few professions where you CAN be sensitive to criticism. Animation much less, but you’re still able to approach people in a much softer tone than say… Culinary, where you NEED to be tough on yourself and brace yourself for harsh criticism.

        For all forms of storytelling, even if you want to go into Hollywood, you’re able to bring a person to reality and tell them “You may not find a big audience with your story, it doesn’t seem like it would sell well” without ripping their dreams apart.

        • zac leck

          If your dream is to create, no matter what the profession is, you need to expect that you’ll be criticized. Sometimes very harshly. Art is so subjective, people are bound to have very strong reactions to what they think is good or bad and it’s foolish to abandon your dreams because of it. Now, if Ward was this guy’s hero or whatever, yeah, that would be pretty shattering. But therein lies the dangers of hero-worshiping. If Brad Bird or whoever told me my work was shit I would be crushed, but I’m realistic, it’s not like I’m some seasoned professional who’s been working in the industry making feature films for the last however many decades. It would just make me want to get better.

          Personally, I think it’s much much worse when you get no reaction than if you get a bad reaction.

    • mick

      More people getting upset on someone else’s behalf. I am Jack’s withered sense of surprise. If this was really an artist’s pursuit of a ‘dream’ (heavy assumption no?) then he would not be swayed from his course from one knock back. Mr Music was in the business, Newheart was a big show, so was Rhoda. He asked for advise on what for him was a new path and was lucky to get some from someone who might have good instincts (can’t believe this needs pointing out). When people don’t voice opinions directly you end up with Gena Davis in cut throat island… gnomeo and juliet…. sir billi…. Rob Shneider employed.

      Was Lorenzo upset? No. Are you whining apologist types upset? Yes. Ok enjoy yourselves, why the hell would you miss this chance to be upset over a none event from 36 years ago?

      In other news, Disney’s proposed film Drywall has hit problems after complaints from the moist.

  • slowtiger

    Only proves that you probably can’t get some successful character out of someone who has had problems with that species in the past.

    Ward would have approved the gist of Patricia Highsmith’s “The Snail-Watcher”. OTOH, there was a nice snail in “The Magic Roundabout”, and of course we have mating fleas in one of Tex Avery’s shorts. So I think it’s just a matter of personal preference and how it may restrict imagination.

  • G Fountain

    Those going on about the fag comment, top people in Hollywood have no qualms about language. They can be much nastier than the one word in this letter (which may be a joke considering he underlined the word), which I see as mild.

  • Mrmambo

    This cracked me up! Lorenzo was my mom’s first cousin (he passed away) and was a real character. My family will love this story; thanks.

  • heymcdermott

    Well, isn’t the only reason this letter is being posted here today because someone made a movie about snails that turned out bad? What if it, y’know, hadn’t sucked, or at least had a poster in which every single character did NOT have Dreamworks’ trademark smirks.

    • Ant G

      “Dreamworks’ trademark smirks” LOL

  • Riu Tinubu

    Wonder what he would’ve said about the cockroach in Wall-E, which was brilliant.

    Also, ‘fag snail’ – smooth, Kimball.

  • Doug Skinner

    Well, since nobody’s mentioned it, here’s Topor’s 1965 “Les Escargots.” Maybe Kimball would have approved the message…

  • Diogenes

    But, let’s face it, Charlotte is not that important in the story of her web. Wilbur is. Wilbur is the star of the book and the sympathetic character we root for. After all, he’s some pig.

  • Herbert

    I felt like Turbo was Dreamwork’s attempt to have a toy cash in franchise like Cars.

  • Paul M

    I’ve got a dynamite pitch for Dreamworks, called Stinky – about a friendly animated turd and his magical journey through the sewers.

    • TheGreatWormSpirit

      Watch out. John K. might end up suing you.

      • Paul M

        So I rename it Turd-O ?

  • l’escaggot

    1) Ward Kimball’s letter is HILARIOUS.
    2) I’m gay, and Kimball’s “fag snail” thing doesn’t bother me at all.
    3) Frank Tashlin worked a snail gag into “Porky’s Railroad” (1937).
    4) Tash used the SAME GAG again when he directed Jerry Lewis in “The Disorderly Orderly” (1964), 27 years later.

  • Mike

    I don’t buy the Gardeners of America idea. I don’t garden, and I don’t know many people who do garden.

    I actually like snails, think there pretty neat.

    The valid argument comes with the lack of hips or arms. It may take some experimenting to get the gesture and acting of the snail to jell correctly, and no one wants to experiment in a feature. Also the slow moving tendency of snails is another big problem.

  • otterhead

    It was a different time with different popular terminology. Ward wasn’t dumb. He knew what he was saying. Look, I’m gay, and take no offense at someone in the 70s using the word ‘fag’. Different time.

    • Riu Tinubu

      Um, I too am gay (really), and I do take offence*

      See how poor that logic is? It’s all fine if it doesn’t bother you, but fag was indeed a slur in the 70s and yeah, he knew what he was saying, and along with the WAY he said it, as a put down, it’s all pretty tasteless. But oh well, it’s happened. Your favourite animator or idol doesn’t have to be spotless to be your favourite, it’s crazy when people scramble to defend someone from any possible flaw or black spot on their name.

      *(though not enough to make me dislike him, or really care in the long run)

      • otterhead

        “See how poor that logic is?”

  • otterhead

    And now you’re calling me names. Classy.

    I am not speaking for you. I am speaking for myself.I literally said “I am gay and take no offense.”

    If you think that my statement applies to you and the entire LGBT community, you have a strange sense of self-entitlement. Please don’t do that. Thank you.

  • Reid Jones

    Any article that dismisses one’s idea as stupid is stupid in itself.

  • princeminski

    Jesus, these comments. Mr. Kimball was a wiseguy and he wrote a wiseguy letter. letter so clever and funny it could have gone into print without modification, but Kimball was so generous with his talent that he thought nothing of expending this bit of brilliance on one person. Coming out of the same general age group as Lenny Bruce and Terry Southern, he shot from the hip, so to speak. Stephen Fry has spoken bluntly but eloquently on the cosmic weight of the declaration “I’m offended.” It’s frequently posted on the Internet when the chronically outraged get their knickers in a twist.

  • Larry Lauria

    Lorenzo Music was the voice of Garfield and I think the unseen voice of Carlton the doorman on the Bob Newhart Show..