07 April 2010

ONCE UPON A TIME

Around these parts, the history of the Disney Animation Renaissance - the studio's slide into irrelevance following its founder's death in 1966, bottoming out in the tremendous box office implosion of The Black Cauldron in 1985, rebounding after the critical and commercial success of The Little Mermaid in 1989, and culminating in the immense popularity of The Lion King in 1994 - is something we already know a thing or two about. But even so, Waking Sleeping Beauty, directed by Don Hahn, producer of The Lion King and 1991's Beauty and the Beast, is a most welcome retelling of those years. Brisk (at 86 minutes, even a little too brisk) and eminently playful, it's a delightful little movie packed full of insider perspectives and little in the way of out-and-out revelation; even so, it's a fantastically interesting document that is absolutely essential viewing for fans of American animation, or students of the weird and unholy machinations of Hollywood studio executives.

The documentary takes it as given that the Disney Renaissance was a good thing, that Disney animation at its best represents the very finest in family entertainment and cinematic fantasy; so those looking for a critical evaluation of the studio's films had best look elsewhere. One can't really fault Hahn for his opinion, of course: if you'd produced the first animated feature nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and then the first animated feature to break $300 million at the domestic box office, you'd likely be proud of your achievements as well. But Waking Sleeping Beauty is far from a thoughtless hagiographic portrait of Disney, as it might well have been (it is, itself, a Walt Disney Pictures release). Hahn never come right out and violates the company's internal tendency towards self-editing, but he does twit it a little bit; at times, someone onscreen wonders aloud if what they just said will be permitted in the final cut. (The film's only bow to the standard Disney narrative is its snitty dismissal of Don Bluth as a rabble-rouser, but one assumes that Hahn has a personal sense of betrayal at that man's ugly departure from the studio where they both worked in 1979).

By far, the biggest way that Hahn evades typical Disney sanitatising is in his treatment of the three-man power struggle that dominated the company from the late 1980s until 2005 (note that the film ends in the summer of '94). In fact, Waking Sleeping Beauty is arguably only half about the Disney animators and the films they made and how they made them, and half about the struggle for dominance between CEO Michael Eisner, studio chairman Jeffry Katzenberg, and all-around company leader Roy E. Disney, along with the ultimately doomed effort by president Frank Wells to keep those three men from destroying the company in their constant quest to take the most credit for saving the company. Surprisingly, to me at least, Katzenberg is not vilified and Disney is not sainted; all three men are presented as smart executives with too much ego, because of course it's hard to become a smart executive without a big ego in the first place. As much as possible, Hahn tries to simply tell the details of what happened without editorialising; the result is probably the most even-handed treatment of that famous battle of wills I've ever encountered. He also pays a lot of tribute to Peter Schneider for that underappreciated man's vital contribution to the executive dynamic, and if I could pick the biggest reason why I want people to see Waking Sleeping Beauty - as opposed to the reason I think people would enjoy seeing it - it would be so that more folks would have an idea of just how important he was to the Disney Renaissance.

As for the other half of the film, that's the part that's fun and breezy, the story of the animators by themselves. Framed around a home movie shot from right around the time of the takeover, hosted by Randy Cartwright (a character animator who left Disney in the early '00s and returned as story artist on The Princess and the Frog) and shot by Joe Ranft and John Lasseter, the film is not especially innovative in its form - lots of found footage including video of corporate meetings, a memorial service, talk shows, and tricked out with a treasure trove of caricatures of the bosses done by the staff (these are the best reason to see the film, even if you know the story) - but the footage gives us a sense of the personalities of the artists behind the Disney films that we typically don't get; these are playful, silly people, whose response to massive stress is to indulge in creative anarchy, including a recreation of Apocalypse Now staged during an exceptionally tense time in the mid-'80s (the other best reason to see the film). Hahn does romanticise the suffering of himself and his colleagues a little bit, it is true; lingering on the 12-hour days and strained family life, and then pointing to the finished movies with a dramatic, "Aha, but that is what we made in those days!" But he's entitled.

In the end, Hahn's greatest expressed concern is not with the personalities either in management or in the studio, but with the movies, and how they were made, and so we get the familiar stories about how characters and stories and songs developed, there's the expected and wholly-justified segment of the narrative where Hahn points to the late Howard Ashman, lyricist and genius, as the single individual most responsible for the excellence of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and thus '90s Disney animation as a whole, and plenty of warm nostalgia from the animators about the things they made in those days - even a longer-than-expected time spent looking in bittersweet satisfaction at The Rescuers Down Under, a film that the animators plainly thought deserved better than management gave it - and if that nostalgia makes for a wobbly intellectual argument, it's hard not to get swept up by it, especially for the under-30 set.

And yet that wobbly intellectual stance is ultimately what keeps Waking Sleeping Beauty from being the definitive statement on the subject. Hahn's perspective is brutally concise - he stops the movie cold after the premier of The Lion King, without even a "where are they now?" card telling us that Katzenberg ended up forming Disney's greatest competitor; the mention of Pixar is limited to an off-hand comment that Lasseter managed to cut a deal to make a feature about talking toys; and tellingly, the director doesn't bother noticing that after The Lion King, Disney's period of gigantic box office ended with an abrupt clang in the form of Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is a film about Disney from 1984-'94 and that is it; the violence with which it cuts off is a bit stunning. One doesn't feel that Hahn is hiding anything, but he's certainly not sharing anything he doesn't have to share, which is a damn shame. What we get of Waking Sleeping Beauty is quite extraordinary; just extraordinary enough to make you really long for all the stuff that it's too-short running time and too-tight focus had to leave out.

8/10

1 comment:

Movies Now and Then said...

See "Walt and El Grupo" and "The Boys" sometime. They were released on DVD the same day as "Waking Sleeping Beauty," and they are both interesting in their own right (Especially "The Boys," which documents the Sherman Brothers with heartbreaking honesty.).