A documentary that takes you behind the curtain to show the magic being made, “Waking Sleeping Beauty” still manages to dazzle because of the complex, utterly human story it tells.
That story comes down to ambition and jealousy, and fantasy vs. fiscal considerations – the eternal struggle between art and commerce. In the end, art triumphed and business (and the personal conflicts) won out.
Directed by Don Hahn, a veteran animator, and written by Patrick Pacheco, “Waking Sleeping Beauty” looks at the amazing 1984-94 decade at Walt Disney Productions, with a look back at Disney’s origins. In ’84, almost 20 years after the death of Walt Disney, the studio, whose animation department once set the standard for fantasy animation in the movie industry, was nearly moribund. By ’94, its animation was once again state of the art – but the executives who resurrected it were at each other’s throats.
The film looks at the legacy of Disney animation, which began with ol’ Uncle Walt himself and his vision that started with Mickey Mouse and the first full-length animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Up to Disney’s death in 1965, its animated films – and its blend of live-action and animation in films such as “Mary Poppins” – were the industry’s top-of the-line model. But in the next two decades, as the animators aged and the quality slipped, Disney films lost their magic – and their sure-fire commercial power.
So in the mid-1980s, Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew and a member of the board of directors, engineered the hiring of outside executive Michael Eisner from Paramount. Eisner, in turn, brought in his Paramount underling, Jeffrey Katzenberg, putting him in charge of animation.
The turn-around under Katzenberg and animation president Peter Schneider was dramatic. They promoted younger animators and brought in outside talent – most significantly, the off-Broadway musical team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Together, Menken and Ashman helped create “The Little Mermaid,” the film that truly turned the tide (after “The Great Mouse Detective” and “Oliver and Co.”). Menken and Ashman went on to compose the soundtrack for “Beauty and the Beast,” the first animated film ever nominated for best picture, before Ashman’s death from AIDS.
Katzenberg is depicted as a modern slave-master (the old joke about Katzenberg’s work ethic went: “If you don’t show up to work on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday”). But he drove his expanding team to imagine more, work harder, color farther outside of the lines – to elevate animation from mere kiddie fare to something critics and adults would take seriously.
He was, however, a bit of a glory hound, something that drove both Eisner and Roy Disney into a fury. The calming influence was the other executive Roy Disney brought in with Eisner: COO Frank Wells, who was able to keep the various egos in balance.
Hahn blends battlefield tales of animators and artists pushed to their limit, with home-movies from behind the scenes of these creative types at play. Almost all of the principals speak up and talk candidly about the growth and decline of the various relationships. In most cases, the interviews are used as voice-overs, behind footage of the artists at work or the various films in process.
The bitter finale – Katzenberg’s push to be given Wells’ job after Wells was killed in a helicopter crash – plays out over the mushrooming success of “The Lion King,” one of the studio’s all-time winners. Eventually (though it isn’t discussed here), Katzenberg would leave the studio, then sue (successfully) for a massive severance package, based on profits he helped generate. The film ends before the debacle that brought Eisner down: the hiring and firing of uber-agent Michael Ovitz with a massive golden parachute.
There’s more than a little nostalgic appeal to this film, as it dips into everything from “Snow White” to “The Lion King,” with intermediate stops at efforts as memorable as “Sleeping Beauty” and as forgettable as “The Black Cauldron.” The most winning visuals are the endless series of snarky caricatures the various artists drew over the years of Katzenberg, Schneider and others.
At this point, Disney animation is almost a stepchild to Disney’s real money-maker: the computer-animated films from Pixar (another documentary, unto itself). Still, they did earn Oscar nominations for 2009’s hand-drawn “The Princess and the Frog.” (Someone has since concluded that the film didn’t reap box-office gold because potential male audience members were turned off by the word “princess” in the title – a finding that will have repercussions on their next fairy-tale-inspired offering, based on “Rapunzel” but with something else as the title.)
But “Waking Sleeping Beauty” captures a magic moment in a magical world – when the pumpkin was turned into a carriage and the animators wore glass slippers or had the pixie dust to be able to fly. It was a golden moment, even if, like all good things, it eventually turned back into that pumpkin.