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Waking Sleeping Beauty: movie review

'Waking Sleeping Beauty' documents Disney animation studio's successes – and very public blowups – in the 1970s and '80s.

By Andy KleinFilm critic / March 27, 2010

The 1975 graduating class of Cal Arts as featured in ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty.’

Courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc

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Just for the sake of clarity: The interesting new documentary "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is not about Sleeping Beauty – the story, the character, or the beloved 1950 Disney feature. The title is metaphorical, referring to the renascence of the Disney Studio's animation division between 1984 and 1994.

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Despite occasional ups and downs, the power and reach of the Walt Disney Company over the past two decades has been so great that it's hard to remember just how low its fortunes had fallen in the late 1970s and early '80s. The decline may have started even before Walt's death in 1966, but it had deepened during the reign of his son-in-law, Ron Miller. In particular, the animation division was suffering, as resources were being channeled to theme park construction and live-action, nonfamily films.

"Waking Sleeping Beauty" was directed by Don Hahn (producer of "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King"), one of the many 20-somethings working for the animation unit at the time. Early on, in some of the film's most amusing footage, he shows us a home movie tour of the facility, shot by (among others) John Lasseter, the Pixar genius who now, 30 years later, is running the place. (Among the goofy-looking young grunts is Tim Burton.)

After a corporate raider threatened to take over the company and sell it off in pieces, Roy E. Disney – nephew of Walt, son of studio cofounder Roy (Walt's brother) – helped bring in a new group of executives, including Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells. Katzenberg was put in charge of the animation division, whose output had declined in profitability and quality. "The Rescuers" and "The Fox and the Hound," whatever their virtues, were not "Dumbo" or "Fantasia." The turnaround started with "The Little Mermaid" and escalated with "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast," and "The Lion King."

Hahn's film recounts this amazing reversal through voice-overs extracted in interviews with all the then-surviving principals. (Roy E. Disney, a major participant, died late last year, after the film had started playing at festivals.) Of course, the triumphs of the first two-thirds are less dramatic than the final third, detailing the rifts that blew apart this successful team. Wells, whose calm helped contain the other executives' ego-driven conflicts, died in a plane crash; Katzenberg, the man who brought Eisner aboard, had a monumental and public falling-out with his protégé.

"Waking Sleeping Beauty" is a truly strange project – a documentary probing into a company's sometimes ugly inner struggles ... made by the company itself. Hahn and his producer, Peter Schneider, are at times in the center of the action. To "maintain some distance" (according to Hahn), they hired independent journalist Patrick Pacheco to conduct the interviews. Well, sure: That's great. But it's still Hahn who's shaping the material and determining the film's slant.

Objectivity is impossible under the best circumstances, and perhaps Hahn comes as close to "fair and balanced" as possible. But unavoidably there's a sense of untold stories and elided details lurking right beneath the surface.

Hahn ends the story in 1994: The passage of 15 years between events and recollections has clearly softened some of the once burning resentments; Eisner and Katzenberg – the man of whom Eisner once said, "I hate that little midget" – have either mellowed enough to avoid trashing each other or are smart enough to know how bad they'd sound reliving their breakup in public after so much time.

In terms of discretion, Hahn's strategy is wise. But is discretion really what we want? Grade: B- (Rated PG for some thematic elements and brief mild language.)

Peter Rainer, the Monitor's film critic, is on vacation this week.

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