Wednesday, September 16, 2009

TIFF Review - Waking Sleeping Beauty

Disney is known the world over as the king of animation. They brought the first feature-length animated movie in Snow White, and followed that with a string of classics. But by the early 80's, the entire Disney film division had fallen on hard times, and a classic Disney cartoon hadn't been seen in a while. Even Walt had been focusing on live action fare before he died.

The "nine old men" of the animation department were still ruling things, but the building was filling with young artists eager to leave their mark on the storied company. This put them at odds with the old guys, who just wanted them to sit down and get to work. Sadly, the young turks felt they could be doing better.

Waking Sleeping Beauty is the story of how Disney's animation department was saved.

The film is purely clips from 1994 and earlier. Home movies, behind-the-scenes production footage, test reels, interviews, and the occasional finished cut of something, all narrated by many of the players of the time.

It starts with a tour of the old animation building - linoleum floors, pencil shavings, and all. One of the first names we recognize is that of John Lasseter some kid who's behind the camera. We meet other young guns, most memorable? A creepy kid with a narrow face and eyes that scare you off named Tim Burton. The parade of animating and movie superstars continues, none of them knowing the heights they'd one day reach.

Disney was on hard times. Don Bluth had been put in charge of the animated movies, but wasn't trusted by Disney. He eventually left the company and took half the animators with him. This scared the board and the old guard into giving anybody else the reigns.

Rumours circulated that Disney was ready to abandon it's film division entirely, because they didn't need it anymore, what with the theme parks and merchandising, and other businesses. As Roy Disney put it at the time though - if they got rid of the film department, then all they'd be running is a museum.

Corporate raiders circled like vultures, ready to buy the company and sell off the pieces. The board bought them out to keep it together. Then they brought in a couple guys to save the company - Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, the first external Hollywood businessmen the company had seen.

And they brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg to run things in animation. The first movie out? The Black Cauldron - a disaster at the box office that was beaten out by some cuddly bears with cheery symbols on their chests. It was the low point of the company.

Meanwhile, a little movie called Splash was revitalizing the live action division, and animation was kept around just out of tradition and a sense of responsibility. They hit some pretty hard times and went through no small number of changes before they finally found the drive and outlets for the creativity to turn it around.

We already know the results - Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Aladdin, and more - an unparalleled string of hits that turned Disney from a company on the brink to a multi-billion dollar behemoth.

I went in to the movie already knowing much of this. The Disney story is well known to anyone with an interest in animation. But I didn't know the details. I wasn't aware how deep the animosity between Roy Disney, Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg was. I was too young to have even heard of Frank Wells, after all Eisner introduced the Disney Sunday Night movie to me as a kid. But even if you knew the details, the film fills them in even more. Like a good inker, it adds depth and shading and contrast that you'd otherwise miss.

The personal stories, the regret in hindsight from the major players, the grueling hours, the thrill of success, and the visions of how it could have gone so wrong are insightful and a must for any fan of the magic this company has turned out. Waking Sleeping Beauty (a line taken from Katzenberg rallying the troops when he first came on) pulls back the curtain on the Magic Kingdom and shows the sweat and tears that went into its renaissance.

And one thing that struck me - there are a lot of dead people in this movie. Be it those who were intimately involved in the Disney process, or the actors on the periphery. Jerry Orbach, Michael Jackson, Paul Newman, and most shocking to the audience - Patrick Swayze handing out the Best Comedy or Musical Golden Globe for The Lion King. Somehow, seeing these faces again - younger, healthier, more vibrant - really pointed out how that era too has passed. I honestly can't remember the last non-Pixar Disney animated feature I've seen. The Princess and the Frog doesn't look like it will usher in a new renaissance of 2D animation, but who knows? This alone brings a tinge of sadness to the movie.

The producer summed it up in the Q&A afterwards - at Disney you're trained to make a movie 82 minutes long, get a laugh, get a tear, and get out there. This movie is 82 minutes long, has more than a few laughs, and even a few tears sneak in. It'll be making the round at festivals, colleges, and wherever else they can get the reel in. If you get a chance and you're a fan of the company a mouse built, you should definitely check it out.

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