Monday, December 13, 2010

Thoughts on "Waking Sleeping Beauty"

Disney has produced many behind-the-scenes documentaries before. They are often very informative, but fluffy pieces packed with smiling talking heads and footage of animators happily working and maybe a segment showing early concept art or rough animation or something. Granted, I am not saying they are bad; they are often fascinating. "The Making of 'Beauty and the Beast'", which ran on the Disney Channel years and years ago, is fairly typical:

When I watched such specials as a child, I thought it must be great fun to work at Disney. Animators like Glen Keane and Andreas Deja were the stars of the movie just as much as -if not more so than- Robbie Benson and Page O'Hara. Plus, they had a studio right in Disney World! How awesome would it be to make Disney animated features right in Disney World? Well. If you grew up with the Bronze Age of the Disney Animated Canon and want to know what happened *behind* behind the scenes, you owe it to yourself to watch "Waking Sleeping Beauty". The best way to learn what was really happening at Disney Feature Animation during the Bronze Age is straight from the mouths of the animators who worked there. Produced by Don Hahn, "Waking" is a fascinating and incredibly poignant look at the ten years between 1984, when the animation studio was just about to go belly-up, and 1994, right before the record-setting release of "The Lion King". I'm stating the time-span this movie covers right away to forewarn you: This movie is amazing and you should watch it, but overall it feels like the prologue to a much longer and equally incredible story. "Waking" ends before Michael Eisner left (or, depending on who you believe, was kicked out), before Jeffrey Katzenberg kissed off for DreamWorks, and before the full impact of Frank Wells' tragic death became really clear. Walt's poor nephew Roy E. Disney must have felt that he was left alone to arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic before John Lasseter pulled Disney animation out of it's long, long Dork Age. Part of me really, REALLY wants to hear that story (really, just what thought-process leads to something like "Home on the Range" or "Chicken Little" or all those dang-blasted DTV sequels?) I suppose I can wait. Remember how I said that it is a genuine miracle that "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" even exists, and an even greater miracle that everyone working on that movie, which had so many things that could go wrong, just knocked it out of the park? Turns out that's pretty much the case with each and every Bronze Age Disney Animated Canon movie. "Part of Your World" was nearly cut from "The Little Mermaid" (as an aside, one of the most moving scenes in the DVD special features is archival footage of Jodi Benson and Howard Ashman singing the song together -- and then she nails it in the first recording). Both "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" had to be scrapped and rebooted entirely because they had such awful pacing problems in their first iterations. And the film -way too briefly- covers one of my favorite ever surprising pieces of Disney trivia: After "Beauty and the Beast" won the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy Film, and received a surprise nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the highest-ups at Disney demanded more serious Oscar-baiting films. Thereafter, "Pocahontas" became the movie *everyone* wanted to work on -- but they let the other animation team finish their silly little movie about animals singing Elton John songs. Which went on to be the highest-grossing animated Disney film of all time. One of the coolest things about "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is the format. It's not people sitting down and giving interviews; though we do get lots and lots of narration from all the animators. Instead, we see all the archival footage like home movies and photographs and caricatures and other fun stuff we've never had a chance to see before because Disney squirreled it away in the Vault. This alone is worth watching the movie for, though it's odd to recall that Warner Bros. has been making animation documentaries like this for years and years. The aforementioned special features on the DVD are also fascinating (I was especially geeking out over the uncut Studio Tour home movies), and add a great deal more to the story. Now, how likely is it we'll ever see "The Sweatbox"? ---- Festive Thing of the Day! Speaking of Disney, it doesn't really feel like winter until I see Donald and the three nephews' impossibly awesome snow forts. ---- Sketch of the Day! It's hard out here for an artist. Tales from the Big Craft Fair, part 2

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