Thursday, July 2, 2015

Heath Holland On...InDis(ney)spensable: Waking Sleeping Beauty

by Heath Holland
Here’s a documentary for people who want to know how the Disney sausage is made.

If there’s one thing that surpasses my interest in Disney movies, parks, and attractions, it’s the business decisions around the creation and management of those things. In a sense, Disney frequently plays it safe and sticks to what works. Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent were hits, so now we have a live-action version of Cinderalla with Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo in production (and let me tell you, I am SO EXCITED about that. I’m not being SARCASTIC AT ALL). Those live-action movies exist (or will exist) because they make good financial sense and keep these classic characters relevant and fresh for audiences that find the original animated films to be BORING. But then sometimes Disney frequently takes huge gambles that you never see coming. Tomorrowland was a gamble because it deviated in a huge way from the princesses and pirates and superheroes that provide a steady revenue stream for the company, and I find Disney’s decision to devote a huge portion of their Animal Kingdom theme park to James Cameron’s Avatar to be one of the strangest leaps of faith I’ve ever seen from such a massive corporation.
These decisions fascinate me, but the people behind these decisions fascinate me even more. To a lot of hardcore Disney fans, names like Bob Iger, Marty Sklar, Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg are just as important as names like Simba, Ariel, and Aladdin, and that’s why Waking Sleeping Beauty is so interesting for a Disney fan. The 2009 documentary from Disney’s longtime animation higher-up Don Hahn proves to be a revelation by offering an inside look at the inner workings and decisions of the company during its most tumultuous years, 1984-1994. Dohn Hahn is our perfect guide into this world: he was in top production positions on Disney Animation’s major projects throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has been nominated for two Academy Awards for his talents, and has been a major player within the company’s film department for decades.

After Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the company was lost. There were so many people that had been working under Walt and so many projects that were already well into development that the corporation was able to coast for a long time, so it took a while for everything to completely come off the rails, but it finally did. The last half of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s found the business floundering for a sense of direction and searching for its identity. It was during these years that we got movies like The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, and The Black Cauldron. They aren’t bad by any stretch, but they’d lost the magic that Disney movies had been synonymous with for the previous 50 years. Waking Sleeping Beauty gives viewers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of an animation department that was dying a slow death. It features narration by several of the key people who were involved during the time, but it has no talking heads whatsoever. The entire film is composed of home video footage shot by animators, newsreel and film clips, and rare photographs. They reveal the staggering state of the animation department in the early 1980s, a group consisting of elderly men who’d been with the company forever and were at the end of their careers, and a slew of young, enthusiastic misfits full of passion, but with no experience. Days were spent doing absolutely nothing professionally. The company was ripe for a takeover, and the animation department was a hair away from being closed permanently.
Enter the new corporate leadership team of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, three guys with a world of experience who were hired to turn the company around and stop it from bleeding money on projects that only the die-hards cared about. Eisner had come from Paramount, where he had served as President and CEO during the production of a whole slew of hit films. He knew what made a successful movie and he knew what audiences of the 1980s wanted to see, so he immediately set new projects into motion that would draw in massive audiences. Katzenberg was placed over the motion picture division, but his chief role was reviving the animation department and making animated movies that lived up to the legacy of the classic films of the past. Together, these three men shook up the company from the ground floor all the way up, and Don Hahn and his pals in the animation department were documenting everything that was happening along the way. The film shows us that many times they were drawing up cartoons of the grueling meetings that they had to sit through (which Katzenberg scheduled for 6 a.m.) and recording video of how miserable they were after creating hundreds of drawings for a movie pitch and getting none of them approved. We’re lucky to have such prolific evidence of the department’s growing pains and see the men who put pencil to paper discussing how they didn’t even have time for their families because they were working so hard.

The film also shows us how the new leadership brought in a young songwriter named Howard Ashman, who -- with his musical collaborator Alan Menken -- had spearheaded the off-broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors and the subsequent film adaptation. Ashman and Menken immediately began working on songs for a movie that would become The Little Mermaid, and this documentary has footage of the actual pitch that he made where he played his song ideas for a room full of animators and executives. Slowly, we see the Disney animation department go from failures that didn’t even make their budget back to smashes like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. One of my favorite segments of the film shows Siskel and Ebert discussing how they had heard that the New York Film Festival gave Beauty and the Beast a standing ovation and how they’d doubted any film could be worthy of such praise from a cynical New York crowd. Ebert then explains that the movie had surpassed even his lofty expectations when he finally saw it and how he understood why that New York crowd had been blown away.
No sooner had Walt Disney Animation once again become a household name before the inevitable decline began. The executives were buoyed by the massive successes they were seeing at the box office and in pop culture, and it was decided that Disney would produce a new animated feature not every four years, but now one every single calendar year. Howard Ashman succumbed to the AIDS virus, and Jeffrey Katzenberg was growing hungry for the spotlight that Michael Eisner now occupied. There are some pretty candid interviews among these key players as they discuss the politics that were going on behind the scenes as well as publicly in the early ‘90s, and it’s clear what a powder keg the situation had become.

What this all manages to do for us as the audience is to put a very human face on such a huge, faceless company. It shows us that egos and hurt feelings can have just as profound of an effect on a finished movie as poor direction, and it reveals the toll that success had taken on the animators themselves, who were on the verge of nervous breakdowns. It also shows a disconnect between corporate leadership and the men and women who were doing the actual creation of these films. Disney employees are often like Peter Pan; they refuse to let go of the impish desire to cause mischief and refuse to take anything too seriously. So much of the footage we see reveals people who are at the absolute end of their leash, but who are still able to express their frustration through pranks and caricatures of their bosses. Even in the DVD supplemental features of the movie, Don Hahn comes off as a world-weary man with a twinkle of chaos in his eyes. I can think of no people I’d rather surround myself with than Disney animators and animation producers because they know the value of hard work, but they also know the value of holding on to their inner child. Nobody is in it for the money; they’re in it to create magic.
Waking Sleeping Beauty offers a warts-and-all look at a very brief window in the history of the Disney studio and shows how the company was able to turn itself around and become an industry leader in just a few short years before everything once again fell apart. It’s sad, sometimes uncomfortable, but extremely engaging. It helps that most of the people involved are able to look back on those years with a measure of fondness and are proud of what they were able to accomplish during the sprint, knowing it couldn’t last forever. It’s a story that’s been written about before, most notably in the book DisneyWar by James B. Stewart, a book that I’ve admired and recommended before. That story was told from an outsider’s perspective, but now, thanks to Don Hahn and his fellow insiders, we’re able to get the whole story from the people who were there.


  1. Hm, my previous comment didn't register for some reason. Well thank you, thank you for this awesome review! It does sound fascinating to know what goes on in the Disney machine that generated so many stories that were profoundly influential for better or worse. I agree that Disney is magical. I visited CalArts once, cofounded by Walt Disney, and just walking through there felt like you were stepping into something great. Honestly, I wondered if it was just the money behind it? But it felt special. The sum was transcending beyond even the amazing parts.

    The Little Mermaid, their "comeback movie" I guess, is really high on my list of favorite films. The visuals - my God. My favorite is Ursula stirring the sea with the triton. Please tell me - where else will you EVER see an image like that? NOWHERE ELSE! (Of course whenever I'm really angry I imagine I'm Ursula at that moment).

    Hey, I'm from Hawaii and we hear there will be yet ANOTHER Disney Hawaii story - and soon. Did you know Disney has a resort on west Oahu? And I think it's probably not doing great. Ya, so. One can assume what the reasons are behind the making of this next movie. But it's a really nice resort. Even some friends of mine who swear they hate the Disney machine admit to feeling something special when they walk in there. I love Disney. The image they created of the "perfect girl/woman" really sucks, but otherwise they were so other-worldly. As a side note - the Muppets, though, who I love much MORE than Disney, don't belong with Disney. :(

    1. Meredith, I know Disney is a huge machine, but I honestly think most of the people that are with that company are there because they want to make the world a more pleasant place to live. My guess is that your experience at CalArts had less to do with the money behind it (though I'm sure that factored in) and more to do with the general spirit of optimism and fun that most of their employees possess. I just got back from a Disney World trip, and it's like going to another world. Every single person who works there is committed to the ideal, and it's not for the money, either, because most of the employees in the parks make between minimum wage and 10 dollars an hour. Everyone, from the people sweating in the Tigger costume to the person driving the boat on the Jungle Cruise, is there because they love what they do.

      Sometimes it's a struggle for me to balance the optimism of the Disney ideal with the reality of the corporate machine. I once expressed to our very own JB how conflicted I was about the way Disney markets and sells happiness, but he told me "there are worse things to sell." I think he's right, and I think the company is taking their characters in some really great, progressive directions. Frozen was just the start of what I hope is something big.

    2. Oh Heath, I want to believe what you say about the commitment of the employees getting minimum wage. I kind of believe it could be so - I mean at CalArts I thought maybe instead of being a student, they could hire me (at what would probably be super low or NO wage) just to greet and hug people who entered. I wanted to hug everybody and tell them how wonderful it was just to be in that magical place. I'm not kidding, I thought about setting up an appointment with someone in charge.

      As enthusiastic as I feel though, I've never before attributed their magic to having anything to do with their message or making the world better. I always thought it was due to their means (creativity, talent, collaborations, timing, music, everything). You can tell they put their heart in their work. I still think that their message sucks. I still think their well-intentioned stories about happiness have been false and misleading. Especially as a woman I feel their message (a visual one ingrained since childhood, thanks in large part to them) is a trap and danger zone. The trouble isn't so much that you HAVE to be thin/pretty/fun/feisty/sweet and hopefully have a good singing voice to be want-able, it's that you HAVE to be want-able, like there's no other choice. No self validating options. No language or example to aid in self understanding. Women characters often don't have autonomy, no matter how "feisty" they are, I'm sorry. They're feisty usually because someone else thinks that's cute. Disney just has these commonly held beliefs about women that are so so hard to escape buying into about yourself on a day to day basis. I don't blame it all on them. Plus it seems they are trying, they're getting a little better. I think I remember in Brave that Merida learns a lesson that builds her own character up...for herself. And I'm glad for the day, which I understand may have come with Frozen (I need to see it), when the means and the message are both fantastic? It's a lot to ask for but since Disney is practically educational they SHOULD be trying to get it right.

      Anyway, I guess you are right. They're trying to make the world happier and better. But there's a learning curve there, they may be just getting it now.

  2. This sounds really interesting. Have you seen Stan and Ollie? I have heard such good things so I want to track it down. I also recommend Stuff you nissed in history class podcast episodes on the making of Haunted Mansion!

    1. I haven't seen Stan and Ollie, but I want to. I just need to make it happen.

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