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When Disney cartoons became reanimated

The film 'Waking Sleeping Beauty' shows how the studio went from the bleak '80s to creative and box office success.

January 10, 2010|By John Horn >>>

It was like any other class reunion -- friends who hadn't seen each other for decades catching up while "When You Wish Upon a Star" played in the background. But even though there also was talk of old wounds and slights, this holiday-season gathering wasn't marking the anniversary of any high school or college graduation. Instead, the several hundred people crowding into Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre had come together to revisit one of the best comeback stories in show business history: the resurrection of Walt Disney Animation.

The reunion was actually a screening of "Waking Sleeping Beauty," a new documentary recounting the 10 years starting in 1984 when Disney's animation arm was transformed from a rudderless shadow of its former self (the dark and disturbing "The Black Cauldron" marking the nadir) into the creative and financial heart (with the life-affirming "The Lion King" at the apex) of the sprawling entertainment conglomerate.

Scheduled to be released theatrically March 26, "Waking Sleeping Beauty" will premiere to local audiences today at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. While the movie is not likely to generate as much "is-that-fool-based-on-me?" chatter as 1992's "The Player," the documentary does offer an unusually forthright peek into one of the most contentious but ultimately fruitful periods in modern Hollywood.

Inside the El Capitan at the screening for Disney animators several weeks ago, the atmosphere was festive. "Most of you are in this movie," the film's producer, Peter Schneider, told the veteran animators before the movie commenced. Added the film's director, Don Hahn: "It's your movie."

The introduction was only partly true -- "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is Schneider and Hahn's story as well. The two were witnesses to and participants in the animation turnaround: Schneider was president of Disney animation during its resurgence, while Hahn was a producer of the division's "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" blockbusters.

Given their backgrounds and Schneider's explanation to the El Capitan crowd of why he made the documentary -- journalists covering the studio during that time loved recounting Disney's boardroom fights, "but I never felt they captured the joy and beauty of making these movies," Schneider said -- you might expect "Waking Sleeping Beauty" to be self-serving hagiography, a wart-free portrait of artists in all their animation glory. In addition, the film was financed by Disney, which also will distribute it.

What's surprising about the documentary, though, is that it's not all singing squirrels.

"That period was very good and very hard," Ron Clements, a director and writer of "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin," said after the screening. "It was stressful, but it was a very fun period."

"Waking Sleeping Beauty" doesn't paint over the conflicts that not only were inevitable in Disney's resurgence but also were an outcome of the turnaround itself, as the studio's most senior executives (Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Roy E. Disney) squabbled over who deserved credit for the renaissance.

"We were hyper aware of not making a puff piece," Hahn said in an interview.

"Waking Sleeping Beauty" tracks two parallel plots. The first and most central to the documentary is how low Disney's animation division had fallen in the years leading to the 1980s -- "given up for dead," the movie states -- and what it took to restore the division to its former brilliance. The second story line follows the studio managers determined to bring the unit back and how their infighting ultimately split Disney apart.

The documentary opens with the 1994 premiere of "The Lion King," which would go on to gross more than $780 million worldwide and make vastly more money as a Broadway musical. "To an outsider, it looked like a perfect world," Hahn says in the film's narration. "But backstage, the tension had reached a peak."

The movie then takes audiences behind the Disney curtain.

A big shake-up

Though Pixar Animation Studios (now a part of Disney) currently enjoys the best track record among any filmmaking company, what the company founded by Walt Disney began to accomplish in animation 25 years ago is scarcely less extraordinary -- especially given the division's doldrums.

Once the studio's artistic and economic lynch pin, animation had tumbled from the cultural landmarks of the 1930s and '40s ("Fantasia," " Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Dumbo") to "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Black Cauldron," movies that attracted as little critical attention as it did box office. As badly as the Disney animated films were performing, morale among the filmmakers was arguably worse; the animators were eventually kicked off Disney's Burbank lot, to scruffy Glendale offices.

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