From a pair of true Disney insiders comes a surprisingly candid look at the decade of 1984-1994, an era known as the Disney Renaissance. How did Disney Animation go from The Black Cauldron, an over-budget misfire that couldn’t even beat The Care Bears Movie* at the box office to the powerhouse of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King?
Producers Don Hahn and Peter Schneider – Hahn started out a gopher in Disney animation, eventually becoming producer of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King; Schneider was brought in from the New York theater world to lead the animation division during the Eisner/Wells era – have taken archival footage and audio from interviews conducted by journalist Patrick Pacheco to sew together the story, an alignment of stars that created the modern era’s big Disney hits and the power struggles that eventually lead to that magic kingdom going supernova.
While the book DisneyWar goes into greater detail of the mechanics of this rise and fall, especially the fallout after Chief Operating Officer Frank Wells’ tragic death in a helicopter accident, when Katzenberg pushed to take over his suddenly-vacated position, Waking Sleeping Beauty does hit the main story beats: The Black Cauldron, Oliver and Company and The Great Mouse Detective leading into Howard Ashman’s arrival and the Little Mermaid; the blip that was The Rescuers Down Under; then Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin topped off by The Lion King, which was originally considered a filler movie before Pocahontas.
Was Eisner jealous of Katzenberg’s media attention in the wake of the animated hits? The movie suggests so, and it also suggests that Katzenberg was an uncaring taskmaster who drove the animators to get carpal tunnel syndrome and forsake their families before he had a crisis of contrition in the face of his impending resignation.
The movie, narrated by Hahn (reading a script by Pacheco), does give an insider’s perspective, although there’s less of the grunt’s eye view. It’s mostly told through the voices of Schneider, Roy Disney, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and the directors Rob Minkoff, Roger Allers, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. The heavy hitters, in other words. Great animation artists like Dave Pruiksma and Lisa Keene pop in here and there, but the focus of the movie is really from a producer’s perspective. It makes sense, given Schneider and Hahn’s positions, that the story is told this way, and they do a good job of using archival footage to bring you behind the scenes and into that era.
And in that era it stays. The movie stops after Lion King, so you won’t learn that Katzenberg has gone on to a great second act with Dreamworks Animation, that he prevailed against Eisner in court over his unceremonious departure from the company, and that Eisner was later driven out by Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney, the man who originally hired him. And while John Lasseter and Toy Story are mentioned, you also won’t learn that PIXAR later eclipsed the Disney Renaissance in box office and critical consistency.
While it stays pretty objective, Waking Sleeping Beauty isn’t a factual documentary like you would see on a DVD, but that’s what makes it unique. This is the real players telling their own story, with Disney’s rich archival video library and their own home movies. It’s great that the Disney Company (or at least former Studio honcho Dick Cook, who greenlit the project before he was fired) has supported this very personal, warts-and-all look at the history. It isn’t an analysis of how to create an animation renaissance, but I think aspiring filmmakers will enjoy walking the halls as the magic is being made… and the egos are being inflated.
Waking Sleeping Beauty opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles.
* To be fair, I loved The Care Bears movie when I was a kid, but in terms of actual animation art it is well-below the Disney standard. Just so you know, I wasn’t only a Care Bears fan when I was four years old. I also loved some of Disney’s less-celebrated classics like Robin Hood and Sword in the Stone.