The word in Hollywood is that Steven Spielberg recently had a secret screening of a controversial new documentary about Disney animation.
We saw “Waking Sleeping Beauty” yesterday at the Hamptons International Film Festival, and all I can say is, I know why Spielberg was curious. He’s in it. So are some of the people he invited over to watch it with him, including Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Don Hahn’s extraordinary film (co-produced with former Disney cartoon chief Peter Schneider) tells the story of Disney’s animation division for its decade of unparalleled modern success: from 1984 to 1994, or, roughly, from “The Little Mermaid” through “The Lion King.” Veteran entertainment journalist Patrick Pacheco has fashioned this story into a compelling narrative.
What’s interesting about all this is that the film details all the fighting in the executive suites at Disney among Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the late Frank Wells (an admired peacemaker), and Roy Disney. All of these feuds are still active even though Eisner and Katzenberg are gone, Wells is dead, and Disney is said to be quite ill.
What you don’t want to miss: Disney and Eisner’s catfight at Wells’s memorial service. It’s not to be believed.
Basically Hahn shows how all these guys competed for publicity and attention. It’s all about ego.
Lucikly, Hahn and Schneider discovered that, against Disney rules, animator Randy Cartwright had been making homemade films at Disney for years, chronicling everything. His cameraman? John Lasseter, who would eventually leave, start Pixar, and then to return to conquer Disney. The films are used as a through line for “Waking.”
Hahn stops short in 1994, right before Katzenberg leaves Disney to start Dreamworks with Spielberg and attempts to get revenge on his old boss. That’s for the sequel.
Along the way, we learn a lot about the Disney animators, kicked off the lot in ‘84 so Katzenberg would have more room for his successful run of live action films via Touchstone, like “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People.”’ But then “Mermaid” hits, and a series of animated films like “Pocohantas” and “Aladdin” revive the business. Disney builds a whole new building for the animators on their Burbank lot. The animators start to burn out, however, from all the work. And the execs are at war.
Now here’s the weird part of “Waking Sleeping Beauty”: Disney has given its blessing to the film, and says it will be released next spring. They’ve let the filmmakers license Disney footage. The company’s chairman, Robert Iger, is said to be okay with it. This is incredibly insightful of Iger, who might also consider releasing a long suppressed doc called “Sweatbox,” by Trudie Styler (aka Mrs. Sting) about the making of “The Emperor’s New Groove.”
For animation lovers and Disney aficionados, “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is going to be like getting the tablets from on high. But for Hollywood historians, it’s even better: a real document about some of the industry’s biggest egos, and how they fought their wars. Amazing.