Grant Munro’s life is exemplified by Robert Frost’s most famous poems. The first, “Mending Wall,” concludes memorably with “good fences make good neighbours.” It inspired Norman McLaren to make Neighbours, the pixilated anti-war classic which starred Munro, and is his greatest legacy. The second, “The Road Not Taken,” begins with “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both.” Considering the multi-talented Mr. Munro, it’s impossible not to imagine what other roads he might have pursued in his career.
Born in Winnipeg in 1923, Grant Munro showed talent as a sculptor and flipbook maker while still an adolescent. He wanted to take dance lessons as well, but recalls that for his father, it “was certainly a definite no-no.” Munro was allowed to study sculpture, which he did at the Ontario College of Art. His teacher, the painter Frank Carmichael, one of the illustrious Group of Seven, arranged to have Norman McLaren interview Munro’s class for a position in the Animation Unit at the National Film Board. Munro was hired, joining a group that included George Dunning and René Jodoin, both of whom went on to distinguished careers in animation.
Quickly establishing himself as a fine animator of paper cut-outs, Munro worked on a number of musical shorts, notably The Three Blind Mice (1946), with Dunning and another neophyte, Bob Verrall. Soon afterward, René Jodoin and Munro left the Film Board for Mexico, with hopes of making films and art there. When film work didn’t pan out, they returned to Ottawa and Munro took a job as a filmstrip artist for Crawley Films. By 1951, Munro was back at the Board, animating instructional films and acting for McLaren on a pixilation project that eventually became the Oscar-winning Neighbours (1952).
The following year Munro acted in The Ballot-o-Maniac, a funny if didactic film about an eager volunteer who almost gets his candidate disqualified from an election. As the volunteer, Munro is brilliant: his face, a marvellous cross between Stan Laurel and Alec Guinness, shows off the character’s naïve approach to life. Should Munro have taken up an acting career after that film and Neighbours?
In any event, he didn’t. In the late 1950s, Munro did depart from the NFB again, but simply to pursue his animation career in England. After three years working with George Dunning at TV Cartoons, Munro returned to Canada in poor health. Eventually, he went back to the NFB, where he and McLaren collaborated on A Christmas Cracker (1963) and Canon (1964). In both Canon and Two Bagatelles (1952), Munro showed a talent for dancing with wit, fluency and distinction.
Never a cel animator, Munro shifted to directing live-action, with a trick film (Toys, 1966), an anti-smoking comedy (Ashes of Doom, 1970) and the documentaries Boo Hoo (1975), Tour en l’air (1973) and See you in the Funny Papers (1983). He showed flair in all the films, particularly in the anti-war Toys and the quirky character portrait Boo Hoo.
Should Munro have pursued dancing and acting? Or documentary directing? The reality is that he took a career path that allowed him to be successful in a number of disciplines. It’s a road that few have taken as well as Grant Munro.