Wednesday, December 1, 2010

'Waking Sleeping Beauty,' 'The Boys' and 'El Grupo' Explore Disney's Past

This week, Disney offers up a wealth of video releases for the holidays. The flashiest choice is Walt's great experiment of animation and classical music, Fantasia, presented for the first time on Blu-ray and packaged with the updated but less compelling Fantasia 2000. Noteworthy for Disney completists and armchair historians, though, are three recent documentaries that saw only limited release in theaters and are finally reaching a broader audience on DVD. Two of them are honest and heartfelt looks at creative passion and dysfunction. The third is a curious misfire set at a critical turning point in Walt Disney's career.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Peter Schneider, Roy E. Disney
and Jeffrey Katzenberg, back in the day
Between 1984 and 1994, the Walt Disney Studios had one of the most remarkable runs in film history, producing the classic animated features The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. They were critical and commercial successes that ushered in a new golden age of animation. That these movies came from a company almost broken up and sold for scrap in the early 1980s is even more amazing.

After Walt died in 1966, the company he co-founded--particularly the animation division--languished. Rudderless without the presence of the great man and paralyzed by a "what would Walt do?" mentality, the studio released a number of mostly forgettable animated films including The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. The studio was still attracting talented young animators like Glen Keane, Tim Burton and John Lasseter, but they lacked direction and the studio had difficulties retaining many of them. Troubles were compounded when Disney became the target of a hostile takeover in 1984 that threatened to dismantle the company. It wasn't until "the perfect storm" of creative forces and studio leadership miraculously came together that Disney began to rise from the ashes.

Producer Peter Schneider and producer/director Don Hahn were there during those tumultuous and ultimately exhilarating years, but Waking Sleeping Beauty isn't about them. It's about everyone and everything that went on around them, from the long, exhausting hours put in by the animation department to the ego clashes among top executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney to the mercurial brilliance of the late lyricist Howard Ashman (in the bonus features, do not miss his eloquent lecture to studio employees about the connection between Broadway musicals and animated feature films). It takes hard work and more than a little office politics to make magic and Waking Sleeping Beauty never shies away from that harsh reality of the motion picture biz-ness.

The film benefits by relying entirely on archival material to tell its story. There are no reminiscing talking heads or crosscuts to present day to get in the way of the narrative. You're totally immersed in the sights and sounds of late 20th century Disney, whether from old news clips, interview footage or home movies shot by studio staff. Modern day comments are provided in voice over and they come from most of the major players. At times, it's quite candid, particularly from Schneider, Eisner and Katzenberg, who are not always depicted favorably, but are still treated honestly and fairly by Hahn. He proves that under the right circumstances, even the most dysfunctional family is capable of greatness. As Eisner notes in the film, "Go to any institution, any university, any hospital, any corporation, any home, any house. You know what? The human condition overshadows bricks and mortar, every time. And it's about fear, and envy, and jealously, and comfort, and love, and hate, and accomplishment. Every institution has it."

This willingness to look unflinchingly at Disney's past and revel not only in its enormous successes, but also its glaring imperfections, gives Waking Sleeping Beauty its strength. If you have any appreciation for Disney history, do not miss it.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story

Robert Sherman, Richard Sherman
and Walt Disney
Sherman Brothers songs have never been complex in composition or theme, but as younger brother Richard points out in The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, they are "simple, singable and sincere."

They also obscure a distant, contentious relationship between Richard and Robert Sherman that has lasted decades.

The Sherman Brothers made their names as the house songwriters for Disney in the 1960s. Their output was staggering: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Spoonful of Sugar, Chim Chim Cher-ee, Let's Get Together, On the Front Porch, FortuosityIt's a Small World (After All), There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, and Winnie the Pooh, just to name a few. Nearly as impressive was the music they created outside the Disney stable: the single You're Sixteen and the soundtracks for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Charlotte's Web and Snoopy Come Home, among many others.

But, as much as their songwriting partnership required them to work closely professionally, they were never, even as brothers, close personally. Robert was the thoughtful and introspective writer. Richard was the gregarious and volatile composer. Over the years, those differences in personality coupled with stubbornness on both their parts eventually divided the duo. These days, Robert resides in London while Richard lives in Los Angeles. They still make appearances at events together, but they're always separate, not part of a team. To see them at the 2006 Broadway premiere of Mary Poppins--a few feet from each other, but miles apart--is one of The Boys most touching and maddening moments.

The back story to the making of The Boys is a movie in itself, as Robert's son Jeff and Richard's son Gregg set out to tell the story of their famous fathers as a means to somehow bring them closer together. That the sons' efforts are unsuccessful forms the emotional core of the film, which laments the estrangement of the Sherman Brothers as much as it celebrates their uplifting song craft.

Walt & El Grupo

In the summer of 1941, Walt Disney and a small group of studio artists, including Frank Thomas, Norm Ferguson and Mary Blair, set out on a goodwill tour of South America. The trip was made at the behest of the U.S. State Department, which was looking for all the friends it could get as World War II raged in Europe. Walt saw it as an opportunity not only to reach out to Latin culture, but also as a means to collect material for future cartoons and feature films. The trip ultimately inspired the movies Saludos Amigos and The Three CaballerosWalt & El Grupo is the story of that trip.

Unfortunately, the trip itself is the least interesting part of Walt & El Grupo. While it's certainly fun to see Walt atop a horse in Argentinian gaucho duds, so much of the footage in the film has been seen before, either in Saludos Amigos or in period newsreel footage. What El Grupo lacks is sufficient historical context. The South American trip came as Walt's studio was embroiled in a serious labor dispute which resulted in a strike while Walt was out of the country. It came on the heels of the box office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia and production delays on Bambi. Only a few months after Walt's return to the states, the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor and the U.S. would be at war, thrusting the studio into a period of austerity as its film output went almost exclusively to support the war effort. These events are certainly touched on in El Grupo, but they aren't given any real gravitas. What were left with is Walt's home movies, What I Did During My Summer Vacation While My Studio Was Going to Hell.

Walt & El Grupo does throw in contemporary footage of South American locales to give it sort of a that-was-then-this-is-now feel, but I never quite got what the point was. Is there any real purpose to seeing the gutted remains of Rio de Janeiro's once grand Casino da Urca, the entertainment nightspot shown at the end of Saludos Amigos where Walt and his crew once spent some time? Are the film makers lamenting its demise? Is Walt Disney somehow to blame? I was left scratching my head.

Disney's Saludos Amigos travelogue is included as a bonus feature on the El Grupo DVD. I recommend getting your hands on the Classic Caballeros Collection instead. It has both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros and contains the newsreel South of the Border with Disney. Combined, they give a more entertaining--albeit studio manufactured--take on Walt's South American adventure.

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