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Movie Review

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Tracing the fall and rise of Disney animation

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 8, 2010

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“Waking Sleeping Beauty,’’ a documentary about the revival of feature-length animation at Disney, begins somewhat alarmingly. “Between 1984 and 1994,’’ a title card announces, “a perfect storm of people and circumstances changed the face of animation forever.’’ Uh-oh: cliche and hyperbole alert. Factor in that the director, Don Hahn, and producer, Peter Schneider, were longtime Disney insiders (Hahn’s the narrator and both are among the interviewees). Are your infomercial antennae twitching?

Not to worry. “Waking Sleeping Beauty’’ is smart, lively, and surprisingly clear-eyed. Using everything from home movies to TV news footage to caricatures (beware having animators as subordinates), it tells the story of how the most famous animation operation of them all went from being all but moribund to producing a string of hits: “The Little Mermaid,’’ “Beauty and the Beast,’’ “Aladdin,’’ “The Lion King.’’ Who knew that the last-named was originally referred to in-house as “Bambi in Africa’’?

By the early ’80s, things had gotten so bad that when the animation department got dumped out of its old building, the animators feared for their jobs. With nothing better to do, they staged a DIY version of “Apocalypse Now’’ (bits of which are in the documentary).

The fortunes of both Disney and Disney animation began to change dramatically around this time. Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, helped bring in Michael Eisner as CEO, and Eisner brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg as head of the studio. “We’ve got to wake up Sleeping Beauty,’’ Katzenberg told the animators about revitalizing Disney animation. The seeds were planted for remarkable success and eventual failure.

What may be the most striking moment in the documentary comes toward the end. It’s at the memorial service for Frank Wells, the Disney executive who managed to maintain some kind of balance among the egos involved. “That was it?’’ a disdainful Roy Disney asks after Eisner introduces him as “the man who thought up Frank and me for this job.’’ There’s so much tension in the air — this is in front of the whole company, mind you, at a memorial service — they could be Simba and Scar circling each other.

Part of the effectiveness of the documentary is that no one gets cast as Scar. Eisner, Katzenberg, and Disney (who died last year) all sat for interviews. We also hear from or see footage of various other participants, including the Oscar-winning lyricist Howard Ashman. Everyone agrees that his death, in 1991, helped contribute to the downfall. Along the way we catch glimpses of two very young Disney employees named Tim Burton and John Lasseter. Lasseter, in fact, served as cameraman for the workplace videos shot by a colleague which help open the documentary. Lasseter is mentioned in passing later on, in the context of a start-up named Pixar.

If Lasseter’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s now Disney’s animation czar, heading both Pixar (which Disney owns) and the company’s animation department. The biggest problem “Waking Sleeping Beauty’’ faces has nothing to do with the documentary, per se. It’s the existence of Pixar. The Katzenberg era took traditional animation to a new level of commercial and artistic success. It was a culmination. What Pixar has done — what it’s still doing — has been a revolution, and it casts those earlier achievements in a lesser light. “Waking Sleeping Beauty’’ vividly captures a period of movie history. It’s just that the period seems less vital — sleepier, if you will — than it once did.

This review was previously published on July 9 .

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY Directed by: Don Hahn

Written by: Patrick Pacheco

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 86 minutes

Rated: PG (for no apparent reason)

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