‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ opens door on Disney & animation’s big leap forward

Posted: April 29, 2010

Feature animation had an explosively great year in 2009, so it's startling to be reminded in "Waking Sleeping Beauty" that it was all but dead 20 years ago.

This inside documentary (made by animators) about the fall and the rise of the House of Disney starts in the early 1980s, when once-mighty Disney bombed with "The Black Cauldron" and corporate bean counters talked about junking the white-elephant animation division to free up money for Bette Midler movies.

New chairman Michael Eisner, though, was a believer in animation (or at least in the power of its brand) and decided to revive it, bringing in a young corporate hustler named Jeffrey Katzenberg to do the job.

"Waking Sleeping Beauty," with some fairly amazing home-video footage, details the massive culture clash between Disney's nerd army of goofball animators and the hard-nosed Katzenberg, a corporate realist who shook them out of their self-pity and got them working again, on projects like "The Little Mermaid."

Katzenberg gets it rough in the movie - he's indicted for being a pushy jerk on evidence that never actually surfaces - but his decisions look awfully good in hindsight.

Like bringing in Broadway tunesmiths Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to score 'The Little Mermaid." We know that Ashman provided the lyrics for the movie's great songs, and "Waking" shows that Ashman (who died of AIDS on the eve of the "Beauty and the Beast" premiere in 1991) was a hugely influential creative force in the conception and narrative structure of big Disney titles.

The movie is at its best here - showing the collaboration and inspiration and perspiration that go into the labor-intensive process of making animated movies.

Less interesting is the corporate squabbling among Katzenberg, Eisner and Roy Disney - "Waking" devotes irksomely long minutes to this three-way hate-fest, then wonders aloud why it bothered.

In the epilogue, a narrator tells us the personality clashes ultimately didn't matter, that what ended up on screen is the entirety of the legacy.

I agree, which raises the question: Isn't your movie about 20 minutes too long?

The movie is best appreciated for oddball nuggets of information, like the fact that the most revolutionary movie in the history of animation might have been "The Rescuers Down Under," a commercial and dramatic failure but the first produced by digital animators. "Rescuers" created the computer drafting framework and basic computer language that John Lasseter (who started at Disney) took with him to his little start-up Pixar.

Produced by Don Hahn, Peter Schneider, directed by Don Hahn, written by Patrick Pacheco, music by Chris Bacon, distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

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