When I think of the history of animation, I tend to divide things into three periods: The Golden Age, noted for early Warner Brothers cartoons and the classic Disney movies such as Snow White and Fantasia; The Age of Mediocrity, where creativity seemed to reach its nadir, as seen most notably in the bland Hanna Barbera cartoons; and the Modern Era, with the resurgence in cartoon creativity, which, starting with The Little Mermaid in the movies and the Simpsons on TV, animation reached a new level of popularity and respectability. Leonard Maltin's book, Of Mice and Magic, shows that my own view of cartoon history is roughly correct but also overly simple: there was plenty of mediocrity in the Golden Age and plenty of decent stuff in the Age of Mediocrity.
Maltin starts off with a chapter about the silent era, when animation was just beginning. Over time, experience would refine the process, but the big leap would occur with sound, in particular with Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie featuring Mickey Mouse. After the silent era chapter, there are chapters that serve as "biographies" of the major animation studios, starting with the biggest of them all, Disney.
The Disney characters are among the most popular in cartoon history (or film history in general). Mickey Mouse may have been the biggest name, but he didn't have much of a personality, so he started being pushed aside in favor of more developed characters, especially Donald Duck, the first major Disney character with any sort of edge. In fact, this is a constant theme in the book: that the weakest cartoons from any studio were the ones that featured characters with no distinct personalities.
Success would often come with the most offbeat and edgy characters, such as Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Popeye and Daffy Duck. But some of the studios had a mercenary nature that would put quantity ahead of quality; probably the worst in the bunch was Terrytoons where good cartoons were the exception, not the rule. Although even Terrytoons would have some memorable characters - in particular, Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle - even many of the cartoons featuring them were not very good (which is why in the world of cartoons, the Terrytoons characters will never outshine even some of the Disney or Warner Brothers second-stringers).
Space limitations prevent me from going as in depth on this subject as I would like, but suffice it to say that after reading this book, I still do feel justified in defining an Age of Mediocrity. It was not that every cartoon in that period was bad, but the good ones were few and far between and classics were very rare indeed. The Age of Mediocrity was filled with bland cartoons that were more cute than funny, often repeated the same gags over and over again, and had few remarkable characters.
What about what I call the Modern Age? It would have started right after this edition of the book was published (1987), so it is understandably, but sadly omitted. Also missing is any real look at TV cartoons, so Bullwinkle, Underdog, Yogi Bear and the Super Friends, among others, are only mentioned in passing. Maltin admits up front that this book won't cover these TV cartoons, nor non-American products, hence the omission of international fare such as the Italian Fantasia-like movie, Allegro non troppo.
The strengths of this book, however, far outweigh the shortcomings. While my opinions sometimes differ from Maltin's on the quality of various cartoons, these are a matter of individual taste (overall, he tends to go easier on the films than I do; for example, he has a more favorable opinion on the UPA cartoons than I do); besides, this book is more of a history of cartoons than a critique of them. In addition to good writing, we gets lots of pictures (only a few in color) and an extensive filmography for all the chronicled cartoon studios.
You probably need to be a certain age (probably at least 30) to fully appreciate this book, as younger readers may not have really grown up with these cartoons and may not have even seen them as adults (and since many of these cartoons were geared only to kids, they would not even have much appeal to those over 10). But if you remember these cartoons and look back at them with fond nostalgia, this is a great book.