Of the nine top animators that Walt Disney affectionately referred to as his “Nine Old Men,” Wolfgang Reitherman is my favorite. He was the animator at Disney who was the best at dramatic staging and was responsible for many of the greatest action scenes and suspenseful moments in Disney animation before moving into feature direction on all the studio’s animated films from the sixties and seventies.
Reitherman was born in Munich in 1909. He studied art at Chouinard Art Institute, graduating in 1933 and joining Disney in 1934 where he animated on cartoons like The Band Concert, Music Land and Elmer Elephant and became one of the main animators for Goofy, who he continued to bring to life in the features The Reluctant Dragon, Saludos Amigos, and Fun & Fancy Free.
After being given the dull task of animating the Spirit of the Magic Mirror in Snow White, Reitherman turned out his greatest work on the scene with Monstro the whale in Pinocchio, which was the first of the many action scenes he would be known for throughout his Disney career.
More than just an animator, Reitherman was a talented storyteller who directed entire sequences in addition to animating them, and he had excellent range. He was able to create serious action, such as in the fight between the stegasaurus and the T-rex in Fantasia, and comedic action, such as in the Headless Horseman chase from Ichabod and Mr. Toad.
Reitherman continued into the fifties creating memorably thrilling moments that were comedic…
After co-directing One Hundred and One Dalmatians where he was responsible only for specific scenes like the Twilight Bark sequence, he had his first solo directing credit on The Sword in the Stone, and would go on to direct The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and The Rescuers, all of which contained his comedic action sequences that Walt knew he was good at delivering.
Reitherman’s sequences tend to be my favorite scenes in each Disney film he works on. Maybe because I’m a sucker for heavy drama. But the slapstick was also great because his comic timing was the best. Not a single one of his comedic scenes fails to make me laugh no matter how often I watch them. He died in 1985 at the age of 75 and was named a Disney Legend in 1989.