Waking Sleeping Beauty

Waking Sleeping Beauty

A meeting for Beauty and the Beast doesn't go so well.

(Disney) Michael Eisner, Roy Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider, Glen Keane, Randy Cartwright, Howard Ashman, Peter Wells, Don Hahn. Directed by Don Hahn

The Walt Disney Studios is synonymous with animated features. Most people are at least aware that studio co-founder Walt Disney (who founded the Mouse House along with his brother, which most people don’t know) invented the genre in 1939 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. They are responsible for some of he biggest box office grosses of all time and when you count the home video sales, merchandising and theme park admissions that have come directly or indirectly as a result of their animated films, the amount of money that has poured into the coffers of Disney is staggering indeed.

And yet it almost didn’t happen. In 1984, the studio had lost its way when it came to the animation department. The movies they were producing – The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron and others – were coming out to critical panning and audience disinterest. The Fox and the Hound came out on the same day as The Care Bears Movie and was outdrawn by the Bears.

Disney as a corporate entity was in big trouble. Their film division was in disarray and only the theme parks were keeping the company afloat. A corporate raider was looking to come in, buy the company and sell off the pieces. The House that Mickey Built, it seemed, was all out of magic. Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, was in charge of the company and seemed unable to pull it out of its morass. Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew and son of the other co-founder Roy O. Disney, resigned from the Board of Directors and led a coup that ousted Miller and installed as co-chairmen Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Eisner, who had a history of success at Paramount, brought over Jeffrey Katzenberg from there to be his right hand man. Disney was installed as the President of the Animation Department.

The Animators were in a period of transition. The Nine Old Men who had been there since the days of Walt were in their 60s and approaching retirement age. The Department was a mix of the old and the new – young, energetic new animators nearly all of whom were graduates of the Disney-funded California Institute of the Arts, where my sister went to school by the by. Among these were future wunderkind director Tim Burton.

The morale in the division was at an all-time low. Don Bluth, widely regarded as the potential savior of the animation department, had departed, taking many of the young animators with him. The building in which Walt Disney himself had helped create such legendary films as Cinderella, Bambi and Sleeping Beauty, was given away as offices for the stars of the newly-created Touchstone Films division. The animators were exiled to a converted factory in a horrible neighborhood in Glendale. The 200 or so animators still left wondered when the axe would fall.

Except it didn’t. Disney brought in Peter Schneider to run the division and the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken for their feature The Little Mermaid and the rest would be history. The Little Mermaid was a triumph artistically, critically and commercially, proving that there was still a huge market for animated features. A new software system was developed for The Rescuers Down Under which would pave the way for digitally animated movies and the Pixar revolution.

In the ten years between 1984 and 1994 (when Wells died in a helicopter crash, effectively ending the détente in a war between Eisner and Katzenberg which would end with Katzenberg teaming up with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen to form DreamWorks, where Katzenberg would form a new animation studios that would lead to such animated hits as Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon), the Animation Studios would go from being an industry laughingstock, moribund and artistically bankrupt to one of the most powerful and successful divisions in Hollywood history.

The roster of films developed during this movie is impressive – Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Toy Story and The Lion King among them. The period is known as the Disney Renaissance and is responsible for the animated feature boom that continues today. Without these films, it is doubtful that movies like Up, Monsters vs. Aliens…heck even Avatar would probably exist.

This is a documentary of this period, taken from home movies (many of which were shot by Randy Cartwright, one of the young animators), contemporary interviews, backstage footage and drawings made by the animators at the time, mostly caricatures. When the animators were displeased, they would respond with wicked caricatures of those who had displeased them, many of which survive today. The drawing above is one such, depicting a meeting in which Ashman (left) lets co-directors Gary Trousdale (right) and Kirk Wise of Beauty and the Beast his displeasure over some of their ideas.

It was a period of great magic, but of great stress as well. The animators were worked long and hard, leading to physical illness and emotional trauma (several marriages would end as a result of the workload). At a meeting with Katzenberg, he is brought to tears over the plight of the animators and as a result, some reforms were brought in although the Studios continued and still do continue to work their animators very hard. There were also studio politics going on (as there always are) that destroyed friendships and created additional stress.

Still, the results are movies that will live forever as classics and that isn’t a bad legacy to leave behind. Waking Sleeping Beauty is not a triumphant documentary in the sense that it will change your outlook on life, but it is a look at a place and time in which magic was occurring. Those who love Disney animation are going to want to see this; those who love the filmmaking process in general are going to like this. Those who love documentary movies are going to enjoy this, and those who don’t like any of those things are probably not going to see this anyway. Still, it’s a well-made movie that I can recommend easily for just about anyone with a pulse.

REASONS TO GO: An insider’s view of the process of getting features made in Hollywood and at Disney in particular.

REASONS TO STAY: One gets the distinct impression that a few punches are being pulled.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a little rough but not enough to be bothersome; some of the thematic elements might be a bit much for younger sorts to follow or care about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Hahn’s feature length debut; previously he directed the host sequences of Fantasia 2000.

HOME OR THEATER: Home video is probably the way to go with this.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Warlords

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