cover image Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story

Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story

Stefan Kanfer, Author Scribner Book Company $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-684-80079-0

How American cartoons reflect American culture and vice versa is the subject of an entertaining and informative study by former Time staffer Kanfer. Although the sections on recent cartoon history (covering slick studio fare like Toy Story as well as MTV stars Beavis and Butt-head) are less colorful than the history of the early years, Kanfer's tone is steady throughout. From the beginning, animated shorts utilized painful stereotypes: the first real animated motion picture, Humorous Phases of a Funny Face, ends as ""[t]he words Coon and Cohen become caricatures of an African American and a Jew."" This tradition continued as animators struggled to find a more appropriate application for their art, with many of them switching from human subjects to animals or objects in order to spotlight special effects. Kanfer gives brief, helpful background on Walt Disney and weighs how the early efforts of Mickey Mouse's creator differed from the popular cartoons of the day, including Disney's predilection for rural farm settings while most others set their work in cities. Disney was no stranger to the use of damaging racial and ethnic caricatures, however. In ""The Three Little Pigs"" the wolf wore rabbinical dress and spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent. The births of many popular characters provide amusing anecdotes: Daffy Duck, for example, was given his characteristic sputtering voice as a dig at a Warner Brothers executive who conducted impromptu inspections of the animators' workplace and suffered from a terrible speech impediment, and Chuck Jones credited some of Mark Twain's writing with providing the inspiration for Wile E. Coyote. Even though Kanfer's story slows a little at the end, it is thoroughly engaging throughout. (Apr.)