Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Fourteen - Favorite Documentary

The Walt Disney Studios has an impressive history of documentary film making, from the True-Life Adventures and People and Places series of the 1950s and 60s to the more recent Disneynature films. The greatest Disney documentary, however, is not among them. It's Disney alumnus Don Hahn's fascinating look at the perfect storm of creativity and ego clashes at the mouse house, Waking Sleeping Beauty. I reviewed the film for its DVD release last December. Below is a reposting of that review:

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.

December 1, 2010


Don Hahn, who produced both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King--among many other great films--has written a new book on the creative process, Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self. The book will be available on May 31, 2011. Leading up to its release, Hahn asked a group of diverse individuals, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The responses he got resulted in this inspiring video:

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