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"Waking Sleeping Beauty": A Candid History of Disney’s Renaissance

by on December 2, 2010

The documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty offers an focused inside look at the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios between 1984 and 1994, up until The Lion King hit theaters to tremendous success. The film is produced by veteran producer Don Hahn (who also directed) and one-time Disney executive Peter Schneider, both of whom played very significant roles at the studio during the time that most identify as its renaissance. Let no one be misled that their involvement indicates a puff piece of a film. The opposite is true; Waking Sleeping Beauty is no mere exercise in self-congratulatory back-patting. Instead, for eighty-six minutes the viewer is given a honest portrayal of the circumstances, people and events that saw Disney animation go from stagnation to a new era of vibrant creativity and newfound respect. You will learn of triumphs, but also of failures and unpleasant internal politics. This is the story of Disney’s modern day success, with the trials and growing pains included.

If there’s a broad theme to the renaissance story presented here, it’s the idea of a new crop of corporate officials and a new generation of eager young animators injecting much-needed energy into a studio that needed to relearn how to push its boundaries. Much of the 70s are basically portrayed as a period of malaise, a feeling highlighted by Roy Disney’s resignation as an executive in 1977 and Don Bluth departing in 1979 while “taking half the studio with him” to found Don Bluth Productions, an act with drained Disney of talent and severely delayed The Fox And The Hound. The documentary’s narrative begins in earnest at 1984 though, the year Disney averted a hostile takeover from “corporate raider” Saul Steinberg. It was also the year Roy Disney’s resignation from Disney’s board of directors instigated the eventual replacement of President and CEO Ronald Miller with Frank Wells and Michael Eisner. These men and Roy Disney receive appropriate focus along with Jeffrey Katzenberg, a colleague of Eisner’s brought in from Paramount to lead the motion picture division. Eisner’s point of view at the time is very instructive; the documentary’s citations of him emphasize the point that the studio could no longer ask itself “What would Walt have done?”, but rather what could be done to build on his legacy. Yet this is also the same man that embraced the idea that the company’s foremost purpose was to create great films. There is a fascinating interview segment with ABC’s Diane Sawyer cited here from 1988, placed in the context of reporting about Oliver and Company and the high costs and considerable effort required to produce an animated film. Sawyer asks, “Can you really afford to do what you want to do in animation as much as you want to do?” Eisner simply responds that “The answer is no, but we’re doing it anyway. We have to do it in this company. We have to, that is our legacy.”

The parts of the documentary concerning Katzenberg and Peter Schneider are the most eye-opening. Katzenberg’s management shook up the culture at Disney, and his judgment saw Peter Schneider leading the animation studio during the time of great hits from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to Beauty and the Beast. It was he who commented “We’ve got to wake up Sleeping Beauty” in an interview at the time of 1985’s The Black Cauldron, a grim affair stuffed full of unpleasant imagery that lost money and even failed to beat out The Care Bears movie in theaters. Katzenberg was not a man shy about asserting himself and his authority; he edited footage out of The Black Cauldron over objections. When producer Joe Hale voiced displeasure over his “We’ve got to wake up Sleeping Beauty” comment, it didn’t take long before he was fired. Yet in the case of Katzenberg’s reign, darkness came before dawn for Disney animators. We are told that when the animation division was evicted from the old animation building in Burbank to “a gutted wretch of a building in Glendale” to make room for office space for live-action stars, the attitude was downright fatalistic. Nearly everyone thought they were liable to be fired at anytime. Katzenberg would call meetings to connect with the staff only to alienate many by holding them early in the morning and even once on Sunday in spite of a hectic work schedule, prompting Roy Disney to declare he’d attend in pajamas if it happened again! One animator dared to inform Katzenberg that “We don’t think you know what you’re doing.” To Katzenberg’s credit, he at least heard out such sentiment.

Katzenberg definitely did one thing right. He promoted Peter Schneider, who knew that decisive action was needed to turn the workplace atmosphere around: “When I got to animation, I knew I had 100 days to change the culture before it changed me. I was trying to empower people, to make them feel good about themselves, to value the work.” This he indisputably did, as considerable commentary from assorted animators affirm. Perhaps the most telling illustration of Schneider’s management style comes with the documentary’s recounting of internal strife that took place when “Basil of Baker Street” was renamed The Great Mouse Detective at the behest of marketing despite disagreement from the staff. Schneider was incensed to learn of a joke memo circulating under his name that decreed the renaming of classic Disney films with absurdly literal title, going so far as to call a meeting to chastise the staff. But even his apparent worst moment is said to have earned him respect, as noted by animator Mike Gabriel: “What I love about it is that he didn’t say ‘Shut up. If you don’t like it, there’s the gate.’ He said ‘We’re gonna make great films.'”

Waking Sleeping Beauty is stuffed full of such anecdotes. You’ll learn about the rift that grew between Katzenberg and Eisner after the tragic death of Frank Wells, and more than you probably want to know about how the men at the top somehow managed to bruise each other’s egos time and again. You’ll hear that, at first, the folks at Disney were confident that Pocahontas was a certain hit while The Lion King was an experiment that wasn’t certain to work. You’ll hear of how Jeffrey Katzenberg almost cut out “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid because of a lukewarm preview reaction, only for the late composer Howard Ashman to tell him “Over my dead body. I’ll strangle you.” You will learn about how Who Framed Roger Rabbit was such an expensive endeavor that Katzenberg had to talk Michael Eisner out of shutting down the project, leading to a smashing success that was a boon for the company.

The narration is complemented by plenty of commentary and old videos from a veritable who’s who of Disney animators at the time, and this is at least one place that you’ll get a look at a very young John Lasseter. For me at least, all of this eclipses the focus on the internal strife that much of the ending focuses in on. The narration says it all: “In the end, nobody will remember who did what to who. But they will remember the characters who leapt from a pencil to the screen and into the hearts of the audience. And that’s how it should be.”

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