Wednesday, March 24, 2010

All the Mouse’s Men: Waking Sleeping Beauty

It is a multi-billion dollar entertainment company, yet it is still guided by the spirit of its charismatic founder, whose family members have held positions of leadership in the company many years after his death. There is only one Walt Disney Company, but the Mouse was not roaring so loudly in the early 1980’s. How Disney’s demoralized animation department recaptured their past glory is now documented in Don Hahn’s documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

For an animator, there was no place like Disney. However, the company seemed to be drifting under the leadership of Ron Miller (Walt Disney’s son-in-law). Still in the business of animated features, Disney’s Fox and the Hound scored a modest success in 1981, but the following Black Cauldron was considered a disaster in all respects. By this point, nephew and former board member Roy Disney had led a shareholder revolt that instilled Michael Eisner as CEO.

Evidently, Eisner and his studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg were not too sure what to make of those weird animators and their costly films, but they had a powerful protector in the new Vice Chairman, Roy Disney. Though they suffered several humiliations along the way, the animation department eventually reasserted itself as the engine of the company with the spectacular successes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

Directed by Hahn, the producer of Beauty and King, Waking addresses some surprisingly sensitive company history. However, its allegiances clearly lie with the animators rather than the suits. Indeed, it could have been just as aptly titled Surviving Katzenberg, who probably takes the most hits throughout the film for his relentless self-promotion in the media. Yet the film’s dishiest revelations involve the difficult relations between the triumvirate of Eisner the boss, his lieutenant Katzenberg, and Roy Disney the elder statesman, as well as the mediating role played by the late company president Frank Wells. In fact, Waking clearly suggests the tragic accidental death of Wells signaled the effective end of era for the studio.

Hahn and producer Peter Schneider (former president of Disney Animation) consciously eschewed talking head scenes, instead playing audio interviews over rare archival video of the Disney Studios during the 1984-1994 period under consideration. Though that is usually a more visually evocative approach, there are times during Eisner and Katzenberg’s remarks it would be helpful to judge their facial expressions. Still, they did indeed get the big three on tape, thanks to the hours of interviews conducted by Patrick Pacheco (perhaps not a big name outside of the City, but recognizable to many New Yorkers as a frequent guest commentator on NY1’s Broadway report, On-Stage).

While Waking includes many clips and storyboards from the animated films referenced, it is far more about the corporate-creative tensions at Disney than the animation process per se. Still, even though Hahn keeps the film moving along at a healthy trot, it probably helps to go into Waking with a strong appreciation for Disney’s modern animated classics. More interesting and candid than one might expect, it opens in New York this Friday (3/26) at the Landmark Sunshine.