Waking Sleeping Beauty -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Telluride Film Festival

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The turmoil at Walt Disney Studios during the past two decades is a great subject for a documentary, and though a movie made by outsiders might have been more scathing than "Waking Sleeping Beauty," this movie made by insiders Don Hahn and Peter Schneider is surprisingly hard-hitting and revealing. The topic is a bit specialized to draw a wide audience, but those who see the movie will definitely enjoy the intrigue depicted.

In the early 1980s, the Mouse Factory was a pretty moribund operation. Walt Disney himself had lost interest in animation during the last years of his life, when he became obsessed with the studio's theme parks and live-action movies like "Mary Poppins." After Walt's death in 1966, the studio muddled along, but by the time the studio released the disastrous "Black Cauldron" in 1985, some were questioning whether the empire would survive.

Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney, decided to shake up the company by bringing in new blood, and that is how Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg ended up on Dopey Drive. The film touches on the company's successful ventures into adult comedies like "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," but the main emphasis of the doc is on the animation renaissance that really took hold with the release of "The Little Mermaid" in 1989.

Hahn, who directed the movie, and Schneider, who produced, were both top dogs at Disney in the '80s and '90s, so they bring their firsthand knowledge to bear.

The film depends on reminiscences from many of the players, including Katzenberg, Eisne and Roy Disney. Hahn also decided to avoid talking-head interviews; instead, we hear the voices of the interviewees over actual footage from the period being described. Somehow, Hahn and Schneider persuaded Eisner and Katzenberg to share their opinions of the other, which certainly are not flattering but might have mellowed a bit with the passage of time.

Among the highlights of the film are the caricatures done by the Disney animators of all the squabbling principals, including Schneider. The film's point of view is that the Disney renaissance culminated with the making of "The Lion King," the most successful picture in the studio's history, which Katzenberg opposed at the outset. The film also suggests that the death in 1994 of CEO Frank Wells, who helped to temper the fierce egos at the studio, led to the company's gradual decline. Some might question that judgment, but it receives a convincing airing here.

The portraits of all the principals are surprisingly rounded. The most poignant sections are devoted to Howard Ashman, the lyricist of "Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," who died in 1991 of AIDS. In the film's view, he was one of the unheralded but dominant figures in the studio's creative resurgence.

Although the footage isn't always of the best technical quality, the editing by Ellen Keneshea, Vartan Nazarian and John Damien Ryan helps to provide the needed energy. "Beauty" might not be the last word on the Disney animation wars, but it's a most entertaining and enlightening intro.

Director: Don Hahn
Screenwriter: Patrick Pacheco
Producers: Peter Schneider, Don Hahn
Music: Chris Bacon
Editors: Ellen Keneshea, Vartan Nazarian, John Damien Ryan
Rated PG, 85 minutes