A little-known chapter in the history of Disney animation is finally explored in the new documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, released this week on DVD. Using archival footage and eyewitness interviews, the film follows the studio during the mid-eighties as it released one box office disappointment after another, finally getting back on track with a series of hits such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
But at the same time, the film also chronicles the studio power struggles taking place, notably between then-studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Michael Eisner. Film Review Online sat down with filmmakers Don Hahn and Peter Schneider, both of whom were on hand to see it all happen…
What was your motivation for making a documentary about this particular period in the Disney animation?
Peter Schneider: To tell the story. I think it’s got a huge, wide appeal if we can get it out there and people know about it, but I just wanted to tell the story
Don Hahn: These are all characters and movies that are deeply ingrained in the popular culture and what I love is the contrast between billions of dollars of box office they made and the humble, chaotic beginnings. It was a story that was too good not to tell. We really had to get it out there and luckily, people have really responded well to it.
It’s strange that some of Disney’s animated fare from the early 1980s such as The Fox and the Hound, The Rescuers and The Black Cauldron weren’t very successful at the time and yet they’re really not that bad. Considering these projects would have been given the same talent and resources as more successful films, why did they fail to strike a chord with movie-goers?
Don: I think The Fox and the Hound and The Rescuers were seen as successes during their time, but a ‘success’ in that era was 25 million dollars. That was considered a huge success for anybody, because the movies didn’t cost that much, but I think where it started to go off-path is there was no transitional period of talent. In other words you had people in their sixties retiring, and people in their twenties coming in the door and I think the studio realized too late that they forgot to raise a generation in-between.
Peter: Two generations, I would say.
Don: Yeah, so you had very giving animators that wanted to train, like Eric Larson, Joe Grant and Walt Stanchfield, but it was almost too late even by the time Cal Arts [where a number of future Disney animators began their training in the industry] started; there was a 40-year gap between generations.
That led to a movie like The Black Cauldron, which had great young animators coming in for the first time and trying to do great work, but the creative leadership then was, with complete respect to those gentlemen, they were second or third-string people at the studio, so you were not getting dynamic leadership. Meanwhile, you’re getting great talent coming up, so the movie just didn’t connect.
Peter: There was just really bad communication on Black Cauldron. When I got there, I came up with a word, which was ‘wingism,’ because the Disney Animation building was divided into wings. There were two words I coined: ‘sequenceitis’ and ‘wingism,’ so you can have a great sequence- and there are some good sequences in Black Cauldron– but there isn’t a good movie, because it was being made in separate wings by separate directors and they were all focusing on their sequences and forgot to focus on the movie.
Don: It’s like building cars: everybody says it’s a lovely steering wheel and it’s a great auto part but you get to the assembly plant-
Peter: Nothing fits. ‘I thought we were doing square things today!
Don: I thought we were making a Volkswagen; you were making a Mercedes?
Peter: And that was happened with Black Cauldron: I don’t think it deserves more credit; I would disagree that it’s a movie that should be resurrected and shown. It’s an interesting historical piece, but I would never put Black Cauldron up as a well-made movie.
It’s well-crafted in terms of its animation and its FX work and its 70 mm work and sound work, but it’s not a well-made movie in terms of having any emotional content. I think that’s what changed when Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and Michael [Eisner] and Roy Disney and Frank Wells all got there, that there was a real focus on emotional story-telling, as well as craft in the story-telling.
There’s a wonderful home movie studio tour early in the film, which is even more interesting when you discover the cameraman is future Pixar chief John Lassiter. And we also see a young, very uncomfortable-looking Tim Burton. Was it strange to look at that footage now, knowing how much has happened over the past 25 years?
Peter: It was a very homogeneous group. I think what happened after the management change is that it became less homogeneous and more outside influences. I think we talk about it rather successfully in the movie, about the fact that it was an invasion from Hollywood; it was an invasion from Broadway and an invasion from musical theater; it was an invasion from all sorts of things that changed the cultures.
Don: And the guys who left, pretty much all of them are now the leaders of animation or leaders in the film industry and they’re all back at Disney. People want to work at Disney; the ideal of Disney that we all hold in our head, we all want to be that. We all want to be Walt Disney, so for a long time, they were dropping the ball and their legacy was not moving forward at all, but now Tim and John and everybody else is back at the studio again.