Saturday, April 2, 2011

Disney Dreams and "Waking Sleeping Beauty"

When I was younger, I went to a school dance with a group of friends and had a great time. It was only later in the evening, as we were all going our separate ways, that my best friend pulled me aside and explained that there had been drama going on all night between two of my other girlfriends who were fighting over the same boy. I'd been totally oblivious that anything like that was happening, and felt sheepish and little embarrassed. Some of the same feelings came up while watching "Waking Sleeping Beauty," a documentary that chronicles the Disney animation renaissance, from the early 80s up to the release of "The Lion King" in 1994.

As I've mentioned before in many of these blog posts, I was a Disney kid. I was exactly the right age at exactly the right time to be utterly swept up in Disney animation's return to glory in the 80s and 90s, and so became something of a life-long Disney obsessive. I'd read some of the literature about what was going on behind the scenes, and knew that the sugar-coated studio version of events was all a front, but most of the negativity involved the public sparring between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg that went on during 1994. As far as I knew, everything had been going fine up until that point. So it was jarring to see how bumpy that preceding decade really was for the studio, all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into pushing feature animation up to those towering creative highs, and the personal tensions that were apparent between the three men who were so often the public face of Disney during that period - Eisner, Katzenberg, and Roy Disney.

"Waking Sleeping Beauty" was directed by Don Hahn and produced by Peter Schneider, who have credits on many familiar Disney features. The documentary is made up entirely of archival footage, a good mix of the animators' home movies, still photos, marketing material, news footage, and period interviews. Disney fans will also be gratified to see clips from in-progress versions of the films, recording sessions, and dropped musical sequences. Hahn provides much of the narration himself, but also turns the microphone over to many of the other players involved in order to let everybody have their say, even putting some of the unused audio on the commentary track. Because of the notorious lengths that Disney goes to in order to protect its public image and intellectual property, this is the first time that many of these stories have come to light, and there's still a sense of walking on eggshells at certain points. Perhaps the filmmakers were too close to their subject matter, as they do have a tendency to sentimentalize events and the nostalgia is awfully thick. Notably, Hahn only alludes to the larger fallout from Katzenberg's departure and the painful reversal of fortune for Disney animation that would occur over the next ten years.

But at its heart, this is the best look behind the scenes of Disney animation that I've ever seen, and finally helps to humanize many familiar names. It makes so much difference to actually be able to watch video of lyricist Howard Ashman, often described as one of the driving creative forces behind "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin." He's showered with praise and affection by everyone in the film, but I appreciated the inclusion of some of the not-so-nice incidents too, like Ashman blowing up at "Beauty and the Beast" director Kirk Wise, cheerfully rendered in a series of caricature drawings. The film is also very good at providing important context and little details to many events in the studio's history, such as the failure of "The Black Cauldron" in 1985 being especially bitter because they were trumped at the box office by Nelvana's "Care Bears Movie." And when the animators get kicked off the Disney lot and relocated to Glendale, we're treated to video of them working out their frustrations by re-enacting "Apocalypse Now."

I urge you to see this film on DVD if possible, for the additional supplemental materials. There's at least a good hour of deleted sequences and full versions of certain clips. An encounter with a young Tim Burton, for instance, is absolutely hysterical when you see the whole thing. If I have any beef with the film it's that I wish we could have seen more of the animators. The only people we follow through those ten years, start to finish, are the executives. The narrative would have been strengthened by following one of the artists - possibly Don Hahn himself - through that time period too. Also for anyone who isn't a Disney nut, it's difficult to keep track of everyone in the film. I honestly wondered a few times if someone had mislaid some captions somewhere.

But these are minor quibbles. "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is a rare, candid look at what was really going on in the Magic Kingdom while the world was falling back in love with Disney. Some of it was magic, but a lot of it was shrewd executive brinksmanship, a changed corporate culture, and a small group of people working very, very hard for a a very long time. It's about time we got to see their side of the story.

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