Burny Mattinson, Legendary Disney Animator, Director and Story Artist, Dies at 87

In June he was set to get his 70th anniversary service award

Burny Mattinson
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Burny Mattinson, a Disney Legend who served as an animator, producer, director and story artist in his nearly 70-year career with the studio, died Monday at the age of 87 following a short illness. Disney announced his death on their official website.

The story goes that Mattinson, who was born in San Francisco in 1935, was transformed when his mother took him to see Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” at the age of 6. He knew what he wanted to do. As Don Hahn, who produced some of Disney’s most beloved movies during the Disney Renaissance, said of Mattinson’s life: “His life could be a Disney movie:  teenaged kid shows up at the Disney gate with his portfolio under his arm and stays for 70 years. He was our story sensei, a brilliant draftsman who showed us what it was like to grind on a story until it was right.”

Mattinson’s first job at Disney was as an in-betweener on “Lady and the Tramp.” Following that, he became legendary animator and Imagineer Marc Davis’ assistant on “Sleeping Beauty,” working on the character of Maleficent. He would go on to work on every major Disney movie of the 1960’s and early 1970’s – “101 Dalmatians,” “The Sword in the Stone,” even “Mary Poppins” (although his work was uncredited on this one) and “The Jungle Book.” By the late 1970’s, Mattinson was a story artist, working on projects like “The Rescuers” (the most successful animated movie since Walt’s passing a decade earlier), “Pete’s Dragon” and “The Small One,” an influential animated Christmas short that was the launchpad for a young talent named Don Bluth.

In 1983 Mattinson wrote, directed and produced “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” the first theatrical Mickey Mouse cartoon produced in 30 years (in the United States it was attached to a holiday re-release of “The Rescuers”). The short was passion project for Mattinson, who pitched the short directly to Disney CEO Ron Miller. And while the Disney old guard wasn’t exactly getting along with the younger animators, Mattinson knew the talent that was now surrounding him and called upon future superstars including Glen Keane (who would go on to animate the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” and Ariel in “The Little Mermaid”), Randy Cartwright, Dale Baer (who also recently passed away) and Mark Henn (who worked on Mickey Mouse). It remains a holiday classic and is gorgeously animated.

In 1986 he co-directed “The Great Mouse Detective,” one of the first animated features released under the new Disney regime led by Frank Wells and Michael Eisner. Mattinson worked alongside filmmakers Ron Clements and John Musker, who would go on to direct “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Hercules” (among others) for the studio. If you ask some animation historians, the Disney Renaissance (as it came to be known) really started with “The Great Mouse Detective,” a lively, brightly animated Sherlock Holmes riff that was funny, heartfelt and had some terrific songs (most notably the big villain’s song, sung by a wizened Vincent Price).

After “The Great Mouse Detective,” Mattinson stuck around, contributing story elements to all of the great movies of the Disney Renaissance – projects like “The Lion King,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Mulan.” In 2011 he served as Story Supervisor for the deeply underrated “Winnie the Pooh” and continued to work as a story artist, as recently as 2018’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” “Strange World,” released last year, featured a reference to Mattinson in the form of Legend, the Claud family’s lovable dog. Director Don Hall, who worked closely with Mattinson on “Winnie the Pooh” and “Big Hero 6,” lovingly referred to Mattinson as Legend and the dog’s name was a tribute to his pal.

“Burny’s artistry, generosity, and love of Disney Animation and the generations of storytellers that have come through our doors, for seven decades, has made us better—better artists, better technologists, and better collaborators. All of us who have had the honor to know him and learn from him will ensure his legacy carries on,” said Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, said in an official statement.

Burny was the Renaissance man of Disney Animation,” said legendary Disney animator Eric Goldberg, a close friend and colleague of Mattinson’s, in an official statement. “He literally did everything that could be done at the studio—assistant animator, animator, story artist, producer, and director of many films that made an indelible mark on our collective appreciation of the Disney ethos. He was also, when he started, traffic boy to Walt, giving Walt his weekly spending cash. Burny was low-key, charming, inventive, and superbly gifted as a draftsperson and a storyteller. His storyboards were beautifully acted and wonderfully atmospheric, which I first encountered when I joined the studio for ‘Aladdin.’ The more I saw of his work, the more I became in awe of his breadth of talent. I value his cheerful friendship and lasting inspiration to me and so many other animation artists. He will be missed, but not forgotten.”

Mattinson was the longest-serving cast member in the history of The Walt Disney Company and was due to receive his 70th anniversary service award (the first ever) on June 4. After being named a Disney Legend in 2008, Mattinson cast member longevity record on March 5, 2018, when he passed the previous record—held by Disney artist, Imagineer, and Disney Legend John Hench—of 64 years, eight months, and 29 days (or 23,651 days). And then he kept going.

What’s so incredible about Mattinson’s career is that he was still contributing meaningfully to new animated projects; he wasn’t just a ceremonial figurehead.