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Movie Review: Waking Sleeping Beauty

05/25/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

A documentary that takes you behind the curtain to show the magic being made, Waking Sleeping Beauty still manages to dazzle because of the complex, utterly human story it tells.

That story comes down to ambition and jealousy, and fantasy vs. fiscal considerations -- the eternal struggle between art and commerce. In the end, art triumphed and business (and the personal conflicts) won out.

Directed by Don Hahn, a veteran animator, and written by Patrick Pacheco, Waking Sleeping Beauty looks at the amazing 1984-94 decade at Walt Disney Productions, with a look back at Disney's origins. In '84, almost 20 years after the death of Walt Disney, the studio, whose animation department once set the standard for fantasy animation in the movie industry, was nearly moribund. By '94, its animation was once again state of the art -- but the executives who resurrected it were at each other's throats.

The film looks at the legacy of Disney animation, which began with ol' Uncle Walt himself and his vision that started with Mickey Mouscki minaje and the first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Up to Disney's death in 1965, its animated films -- and its blend of live-action and animation in films such as Mary Poppins -- were the industry's top-of the-line model. But in the next two decades, as the animators aged and the quality slipped, Disney films lost their magic -- and their sure-fire commercial power.

So in the mid-1980s, Roy Disney, Walt's nephew and a member of the board of directors, engineered the hiring of outside executive Michael Eisner from Paramount. Eisner, in turn, brought in his Paramount underling, Jeffrey Katzenberg, putting him in charge of animation.

The turn-around under Katzenberg and animation president Peter Schneider was dramatic. They promoted younger animators and brought in outside talent -- most significantly, the off-Broadway musical team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Together, Menken and Ashman helped create The Little Mermaid, the film that truly turned the tide (after The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Co.). Menken and Ashman went on to compose the soundtrack for Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film ever nominated for best picture, before Ashman's death from AIDS.

Katzenberg is depicted as a modern slave-master (the old joke about Katzenberg's work ethic went: "If you don't show up to work on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday"). But he drove his expanding team to imagine more, work harder, color farther outside of the lines -- to elevate animation from mere kiddie fare to something critics and adults would take seriously.