Hard as it is to believe today, it was not so long ago that animation in general and Disney animation in particular were art forms given up for dead. Things got so bad that in 1984 the studio, which had been kick-started into success by “Snow White” almost half a century earlier, ingraciously booted its beleaguered artists off the lot and onto bleak rented premises.
But, as it happened, the glories of the world were not yet ready to depart the stage. As detailed in the fascinating new documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” an unlikely combination of personalities and circumstances came together in the next decade to create a run of animation successes — “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” — that exploded into unprecedented profitability.
This tale of artistic reincarnation is a classic show business story, not lacking in temper tantrums and clashing egos, and as told in “Waking Sleeping Beauty” it’s got a terrific inside Hollywood sensibility plus an unblinking candor that lets the chips fall where they should. Which, given who made it, is something of a pleasant surprise.
For director Dan Hahn and his producing partner Peter Schneider are not a pair of investigative journalists who happened on a good story. Rather, they are consummate Disney animation insiders — Hahn was producer of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” Schneider was president of animation and later chairman of the studio — both of whom had too much respect for what they went through to want to whitewash the experience.
Because of this insider status, Hahn made a pair of decisions that aided in the film’s impact. Rather than do the documentary’s interviews himself, he hired veteran journalist Patrick Pacheco to ask the questions. And rather than clutter the screen with talking heads, all the interviews are heard off-screen as voice-over, while everything we see — including unauthorized Disney lot home movies — was recorded during the 10-year period the film covers.
Some of the most beguiling of that footage was shot in 1984 by animator Randy Cartwright, with a young John Lasseter as the unseen cameraman. It showed some of the bright young California Institute of the Arts graduates (like an already-weird Tim Burton) who were working for Disney animation but hardly in a position of power.
Though the legendary Disney veterans known as the Nine Old Men were still making their films, the studio, led by Ron Miller, was seemingly indifferent to animation. This did not sit well with Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew and a low-key individual whose unassuming manner made him easy to underestimate.
It was Roy Disney, however, who helped make it possible for Michael Eisner and Frank G. Wells to take over the company, and they brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg and Schneider. “No more kindly old men in cardigans,” one witness remembers.
Although this hard-edged style led not surprisingly to a clash of cultures, gradually, things began to turn around. A key moment was when David Geffen recommended to Katzenberg that he hire a pair of musical theater guys, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the team behind “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Given Ashman’s acerbic, edgy qualities, that seemed an unlikely hire, but it proved to be a brilliant move on “The Little Mermaid.” “Waking Sleeping Beauty” details how Ashman suggested that Sebastian the Crab sing the iconic “Under the Sea” in a Jamaican patois.
Similar emotions swirled around “Beauty and the Beast,” which was worked on for six months as a straight dramatic cartoon before Katzenberg wisely scrapped that version and persuaded Ashman and Menken to work on it as well. The film ended up with six Oscar nominations, including a then-unprecedented one for best picture.
The successes, including “The Lion King,” kept on coming, but dark shadows were already falling.
The irreplaceable Ashman died of AIDS in 1991, and when corporate diplomat Wells — adept at keeping the peace among Disney, Eisner and Katzenberg — died in a plane crash in 1994, it was only a matter of time before the corporate team fell apart.
But they’d put together a marvelous decade, and this unexpectedly fine film lets you experience it as if you were there yourself.