Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review: The Art of Disney's Dragons by Tom Bancroft

Pages: 128
Released: June 28, 2016
Publisher: Disney Editions
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Disney fan? Check. Dragon fan? Check? Art fan? Check.

I'm primed to love this book. And I did. Ish. Or, rather, I liked it a lot, but because I can see so easily how a few tweaks could have made me love it, I can't help but feel like I've just eaten a really good, really tiny appetizer and I'm so ready to dive into a full entree, but then I've been told it's time to leave the restaurant. And I'm starving.

Ok, so the good? 

The pictures. Almost every page in the book is a picture, and the pages that have words or copyright information and stuff also have pictures. The pages are also a thick, high gloss paper that really lets the drawings pop. This book is a visual delight.

The variety of pictures. Not only do we get your obvious dragon choices (Maleficent, Mushu, Elliot, Madam Mim, etc.), but there are also pictures of dragons that appear throughout the Disney parks and really emphasize how much care and attention to detail Disney takes, even on its merry-go-round decorations. Also included are character concepts that have not yet been released or were planned for rides, park entertainments, or movies that were later abandoned. This was exciting but also kind of sad to see how much effort went into creating something that never came to fruition.

The introductions. There aren't many words in this book, but those that are there perfectly capture the magic that is Disney. They frame the book and provide insight into how to interpret the images in order to glean a deeper appreciation and understanding of the way Disney animators use all these archival images to create new characters and stories. Though I did say seeing all the old, unused artwork was sad, the introduction showed how these images never truly die, even if they aren't used as originally intended. Often in a book like this I might skip the intro, but in this case I highly recommend reading it and reading it before flipping through the pictures.

The areas for improvement? 

I won't say "the bad" because they're not bad things. These are more observations that if they had been included they would have enhanced the book greatly.

More words. I know, I know, this isn't that kind of book. But, the pictures, while nice to look at, didn't tell the whole story. I would have really liked more background information describing the thought process behind the artistic choices. Why a shorter neck? Why three fingers instead of four or five? Knowing the rationale behind these choices would have enhanced the experience for me, deepened my analysis of the images both individually and as a whole, and would have given me the chance to consider whether or not I agreed with the choices made.

Label the images in the book. Ok, I'm big on organization, so maybe this is just my hangup, but I would have appreciated knowing who the dragons were and what these images were intended to be for while I was looking at the pictures. The way the book is set up now, you flip through all the pictures, but you don't know what is what (unless you recognize the dragon, of course). Then, after you've seen everything, you turn to an index that matches up information about the picture with the page number the picture appeared on. This creates an awkward flip back and forth thing that I guess ultimately worked, but was kind of annoying.

Organize the images. I know, I know, here I go again with the organization. And, again, this may just be me, but I would have appreciated if the images had been in some kind of order that provided a framework in which to interpret the pictures. If, for example, the pictures had been put in chronological order, we could have seen the evolution of the Disney dragon and really start to pick up on how the features changed (and didn't change) throughout the years. See the turning points when a longer neck was introduced, or when there was a body style shift, or color evolution, etc. Or, group the pictures according to dragon "type" so we could start to see how certain features are used to indicate a mean and intelligent dragon versus a mean but lower-intelligence dragon versus a heroic dragon versus a comical and kind dragon, and so on.

Show the evolution of the characters. We got this a little. There were pictures of various dragons at different stages of development, but I would have really appreciated three things: 1) put these pictures in order so we can see the evolution of the design, and 2) explain the rationale behind the changes, and 3) include the "final" result so we can see what was ultimately created and how the earlier incarnations contributed to the finished product.

Bottom line

Had these changes been made this would have easily been a 5 start book with impact. As it is, it was a very nice book that provided a few takeaways but will likely be forgotten. Still recommended for the Disney collector or artists who will pour over the pages and pull out little details on their own.

But, for the more casual reader, they'll probably flip through once or twice, enjoy what they see, and then move on. Had the changes above been included, that would have deepened my experience and made this a very easy book to recommend. As it is, I still recommend it, but the audience is much smaller. In fact, instead of library shelves, I highly recommend this one as a resource in art classes.


  1. It really surprises me that the book isn't organized they way you want it to be, because that sounds like it would be an awesome book! (Maybe Disney should hire you next time they want to do an art retrospective book ;))


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