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Waking Sleeping Beauty (DVD Review)

6 Dec, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.08 million
$29.99 DVD
Rated ‘PG’ for some thematic elements and brief mild language.

It would take a miniseries or at least a couple theatrical releases of Godfather heft to sort out the conflicting personalities of Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney and their late peacemaker Frank Wells — who, in varied ways, rejuvenated corporate Disney starting in the mid-1980s from a state in which “moribund” would have been putting it kindly.

And for a documentary that deals specifically with the de-slumbering of Disney animation after years of toxic-apple ingesting, you’ll note that this short list of studio execs doesn’t even include the scads of animators and composers who helped make the Disney visuals sing. All of this is to say that Waking director Don Hahn has bitten off a big chew when trying to tell this great story in just under 90 minutes. His documentary is one of those that leaves you wanting more, but let it also be said that there isn’t a fidgety minute to be had. And besides, he was there — to say the least. Two of the films bearing his name as producer are Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, which will get you in a lot of doors — and not just in the movie industry but also of families with kids. Come in, Mr. Hahn. Would you like an eggnog, sir?

You have to remember what it was like in the period between, say, 1959’s Sleeping Beauty (which itself was a critical/commercial underperformer that didn’t get its just due until way later) and the disastrous reception that was given to 1985’s The Black Cauldron. Yes, there were occasional oases of minor glory, as with 1967’s The Jungle Book. But even though I’ve deified Phil Harris and Louis Prima for decades in my everyday life as much as anyone, the truth is that in this period, teenagers held their noses and couples were about as likely to regard Disney animation as “date movie” material as they were Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. I also remember that critics’ screenings of Cauldron in both New York and Washington, D.C., were such projection debacles that old-timers still talk of them today in folkloric terms. Talk about snake-bit.

Walt’s lookalike nephew Roy Disney, who had resigned from the board and helped usher in CEO Eisner and President/Chief Operating Officer Wells, was consumed by animation — in part because he had grown up smack in the studio’s heritage days. Katzenberg, hired by former Paramount colleague Eisner to head the motion picture division, then learned to love it when Eisner informed him that animation was to become a new Katzenberg bailiwick. Meanwhile, the young crop of animators — and remember that The Mouse was the studio bedrock — began to feel like steerage passengers on the Titanic when they got kicked out of their building for much humbler workspace.

You can argue how soon the rejuvenation took place. To me, it’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988 and The Little Mermaid in 1989, boom boom — two mainstays of their respective years’ 10-best lists and among the most dramatic sky partings of the entire movie decade. For others — an opinion to which this documentary subscribes — it was The Great Mouse Detective in 1986. It would be an unsustainable stretch to call the last year-end material, either now or when critics were writing their instant annual histories at the time. But it’s also true that there was rather wide expression of delight and surprise from professional moviegoers back then: a sentiment of, “You know — that was really pretty good.”

Backstage drama abounded. There was the death of Beauty and the Beast heart-and-soul Howard Ashman during production. The crazy decision (which worked) to show the film before it was completed not only to the press but also to fools-intolerant audiences at the New York Film Festival. The decision over whether or not to give some major time of day to a new company (something called Pixar). Wells’ death in a ski-slope helicopter accident. And the growing animus between Eisner and Katzenberg — also Roy Disney and Katzenberg — over the perception that Katzenberg was putting too much of a self-promoting stamp on the movies when it came time to market them.

This is a story where, the outwardly humble Wells aside, there were plenty of egos to go around — which means there must be quite the spacious middle where the ultimate truth resides. But I will say this. I had a front-row seat for the promotions of Rabbit, Mermaid, Beauty, Aladdin and Lion — and Katzenberg sold those movies (it helped that they all were among the utmost cream of their years) like nothing I’ve ever seen. What’s more, he was more comfortable and personable in the ballyhooing video featurettes where he appeared than Eisner ever was hosting "The Wonderful World of Disney." After Katzenberg resigned, it was never the same (until Pixar, which is another story).

For a studio biography bearing the Disney stamp, this is a remarkably frank rendering of the conflicts — and you also get a real taste of the flakey personalities (term used affectionately) in the animation staff. If Waking leaves you wanting a lot more, its fascination quotient is fairly high, and it’s beneficial to everyone that Hahn got the story told when the time was probably just right. But for a much fuller picture, at least of the corporate intrigue, reading author James B. Stewart’s 2005 DisneyWar is a must.

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