The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History

by Nathalia Holt

Hardcover, 2019




Little, Brown and Company (2019), Edition: Illustrated, 400 pages


From Snow White to Moana, from Pinocchio to Frozen, the animated films of Walt Disney Studios have moved and entertained millions. But few fans know that behind these groundbreaking features was an incredibly influential group of women who fought for respect in an often ruthless male-dominated industry and who have slipped under the radar for decades. In The Queens of Animation, bestselling author Nathalia Holt tells their dramatic stories for the first time, showing how these women infiltrated the boys' club of Disney's story and animation departments and used early technologies to create the rich artwork and unforgettable narratives that have become part of the American canon. As the influence of Walt Disney Studios grew – and while battling sexism, domestic abuse, and workplace intimidation – these women also fought to transform the way female characters are depicted to young audiences. With gripping storytelling, and based on extensive interviews and exclusive access to archival and personal documents, The Queens of Animation reveals the vital contributions these women made to Disney's Golden Age and their continued impact on animated filmmaking, culminating in the record-shattering Frozen, Disney's first female-directed full-length feature film.… (more)


(19 ratings; 4.4)

User reviews

LibraryThing member nancyadair
It was the 1956 rerelease of Fantasia that rocked my world. I was four years old and Mom took me to a Buffalo, NY theater to see my first movie. The images and the music made a lasting impression, driving a lifelong love for symphonic music.

I already was in love with illustrative art, thanks to
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the Little Golden Books that my mother brought home from her weekly grocery shopping trips. My favorite was I Can Fly, illustrated by Mary Blair. And on my wall were Vacu-Form Nursery Rhyme characters including Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue--which I later discovered were also designed by Mary Blair! And even later in life, I learned that Mary Blair had worked for Walt Disney. And of course, growing up in the 1950s, anything Disney was a favorite.

Especially the 1959 release of Sleeping Beauty. I was still in my 'princess' phase, which came after my 'cowboy gunslinger' phase. Mom took me to see the film. I had the Disney Sleeping Beauty coloring book. I had the Little Golden Book. And I had the Madame Alexander Sleeping Beauty doll! Sadly, my dog chewed it up but in my 40s I purchased one on eBay to satisfy my inner child.

Fast forward to the late 1980s and my husband and I were buying up Disney videotapes for our son, raising another generation of Disney fandom. His first theatrical movie was The Little Mermaid.

My fandom never took me as far as to read books about the Disney franchise or Walt. Until The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History. I remembered my love of Mary Blair and thought, Nathalia Holt has something here. I wanted to know the names and the contributions of these unknown women.

It was a joyful read, at once a nostalgic trip into the films that charmed and inspired my childhood-- and our son's --and a revealing and entertaining read about the development of animation and the rise of women in a male-dominated culture. I put aside all other books.

Holt concentrates on the women's careers but includes enough biographical information to make real and sympathetic. I was so moved to read about Mary Blair's abusive marriage.

Holt also does a stellar job of explaining the rising technologies that would impact animation, eventually eliminating the jobs of hundreds of artists. We learn about Walt's interest in each story that inspired the animated movies and the hard work to develop the story, art, and music, along with the conflicts and competition behind the scenes.

I learned so many interesting facts! Like how Felix Salten's novel Bambi: A Life in the Woods was banned in Nazi Germany because it was a metaphor for Anti-Semitism! How Mary Louise Weiser originated the grease pencil, one of the many technologies Disney developed and perfected or quickly adapted.

And I loved the story of Fantasia. Bianca Majolie presented the music selections to Walt, including The Nutcracker Suite's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Waltz of the Flowers. Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker ballet had never yet been produced in the United States at the time! The male animators did not want to work on illustrating fairies (they instead created the Pastoral Symphony's centaurs and oversexualized centaurettes, including an African-American servant who was part mule instead of horse).

Choreographer George Balanchine was touring the studio with Igor Stravinsky, whose The Rite of Spring was included in Fantasia, and he loved the faires in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. Fifteen years later he debuted The Nutcracker at the new Lincoln Center and it became a Christmastime annual tradition.

I just loved this book for so many reasons!

I was given access to a free egalley by the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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LibraryThing member gpangel
The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt is a 2019 Little Brown publication.

Although it is long overdue, it is still nice to see the women who worked on many of the classic Disney films we all know, and love, finally receiving public acknowledgement for their contributions.

Grace Huntington, Retta
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Scott, Sylvia Holland, Bianca Majolie, and Mary Blair are the women profiled in this book, which also follows a timeline, beginning in 1936 and ending in 2013.

The movies these ladies helped to develop, the influence they had on the process of creating these classic films, and the myriad of challenges they faced professionally and personally, are woven into the climate and history of the Disney studio.

The book is interesting, especially the creative process, which is perhaps the most enlightening aspect of the book, for me. That doesn't mean I missed the author's message, or that I didn't find it important, just that I found the art and the talent these ladies were blessed with fascinating. I also enjoyed the trip down memory lane, remembering the films that brought me such joy as a child.

The author chose these women to write about because they did a lot of important work on these films and their involvement was invaluable to their success, but unlike today, when even the smallest contribution can earn an accreditation, these ladies were ignored. Not only that, their ideas were stolen by their male colleagues, and they often worked under hostile conditions, and were sexually harassed.

This slight, is a wrong the author is trying to draw our attention to, so yes, this book has a specific intent and the author is attempting to make a direct point.

However, at times she underlined the issue too forcefully, and was a little too heavy handed, which, unfortunately, gave the book an impersonal tone. The book is also a bit disorganized and all over the place at times, and feels rushed through in places, as well.

That said, I enjoyed learning more about this hidden history of Disney. The process of change for women, and even for non-white males, was a slow one. It took years before women were acknowledged and given more freedom and control at the studio. But the conclusion is an upbeat, inspirational one, showing the great strides women have taken, the impact they had in shaping Disney, which eventually culminated with the first female directed Disney Film- Frozen.

Despite some warbles here and there, I thought this was an interesting book. I admire the creativity of these animators and am very happy to see them finally getting the recognition they richly deserve.

Overall- 3.5 round up.
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LibraryThing member JenniferRobb
3.5 stars (rating shown may vary depending on whether the site allows half star ratings.

I thought this was only going to be about the early days of animation at the Walt Disney Studios, but it does actually cover up through the movie "Frozen"--though much more detail is spent on the early years
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than on the later years (after Disney and Pixar merged).

It was quite interesting to learn about the women pioneers in the industry and the struggles they faced. I honestly didn't realize how many people work on an animated feature (or how long it takes to develop one!) and how few of those names appear on screen in the credits. And for years it seemed who got their name on the credits was very arbitrary.

It's also interesting to see how far women have come in the industry (and how far they still have to go). Sexual harassment is one area that notably has changed--from Bianca running out of a meeting and being pursued by the rest of the group (all males) who even break down the door to her office to having a major officer of the Pixar group suspended due to improper conduct with female employees--big change.

Many of the most beloved Disney characters were shaped by women. Disney films (and Pixar ones too) would probably look very different if women hadn't been allowed to have input.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
Walt Disney was the neighborhood in Chicago where I grew up, claim to fame. The house he grew up in, albeit many years previous, was a few blocks from mine. Everyone new in our neighborhood had this pointed out to them.

A terrific book that I enjoyed immensely. Five women who broke the gender
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barrier, and became integral to the studio. Though the book , and rightly so, centers on these forgotten women, we also get a sense of Walt himself, the studios troubles, and the making of the movies themselves. A process that took years in some cases. We also learn the stories of these women, their struggles, their fight to belong to this entrenched boys club. Glad to see that Walt supported women employees. Was surprised at some of the movies that in the early days were deemed flops. Movies that are now treasured.

A wonderful narrative voice enhanced by the narration of Saskia Maarlevid.
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LibraryThing member gothamajp
An interesting examination of the impact of pioneering female storytellers, designers, and animators at Disney whose contributions were unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, ignored, stolen, or even deliberately suppressed.

As well as providing a much needed spotlight on the women covered the book
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also provides interesting insights into the operations and developing processes of feature length animation over the decades.

If the book has a flaw, it’s a well-intentioned one in that in trying to give so many women creators their due some of the individual stories start to blur together. It may have been better to focus on one or two key individuals from each era.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Walt Disney's animation studio was famed for making feature films about the lives of princesses and fairies, but especially in its early decades it was an all-boys club. The hiring practices at Disney were not at all subtle about not wanting to hire women, and the few women who did work at the
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studio met with great resentment from their male colleagues. Nathalia Holt sets the record straight on five women who left their mark on the Disney's style and success, even if there names were not always credited: Bianca Majolie, Grace Huntington, Sylvia Holland, Retta Scott, and Mary Blair.

Blair is probably the most well-known of these artists with her concept art significantly influencing the style of Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, and her work on it's a small world and the mural at Walt Disney's World's Contemporary Resort still persisting. Her personal life is marred by an abusive husband (also a Disney artist) and alcoholism that is the antithesis of her sunny art work. Majolie was the first storyboard artist and developed the stories for Pinocchio, Cinderella, and Peter Pan. She also discovered a recording of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite - virtually unknown in the US at the time - and used it is a basis for a segment of Fantasia and thus popularizing the music and the ballet.

Grace Huntington was the second women to work as a story artist, but fascinatingly she was also an experienced aviator who set solo altitude records despite test piloting also being a restricted career for women. Holland, another storyboard artist with a musical background, used her experience to inform "The Pastoral Symphony" segment of Fantasia, the "Little April Shower" sequence of Bambi, and "Two Silhouettes" in Make Mine Music. Scott was the first woman to be promoted from ink and paint (a laborious task where most women at the studio worked) to a full animator, and contributed her art to Bambi, Fantasia, and Dumbo.

The book offers great insight into animation and Hollywood culture in the 30s, 40s, and 50s and the doors that were opened to women during that time and those that remained close. Holt does bring the story fully up-to-date with Jennifer Lee rising to the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation after the success of Frozen, and the much broader representation of women on-screen and behind the scenes at Disney in the present day. But the book is best and richest in detail on the early decades telling the fascinating stories of these pioneering women and their enduring legacies.

Rating: ***1/2
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Physical description

400 p.; 9.55 inches


0316439150 / 9780316439152
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