Compelling doc follows Disney animation from sleepy to happy to grumpy in Waking Sleeping Beauty 

A Mouse Divided

A Mouse Divided

According to Walt Disney's nephew, Roy E. Disney, the "real heartbeat of [Disney] was, is and will always be the film business." If that's true, the mid-'80s found the company on life support. While the Mouse House still produced animated features, they suffered from the strain between the aging giants of classic Disney animation (the fabled Nine Old Men) and the next generation eager to make their mark.

The documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty charts the dramatic comeback of Disney animation between 1984 and 1994, highlighted by the enduring hits The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Directed by Don Hahn, who produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King during this period, the documentary is unabashed Disney product, which would lead you to expect a glossed-over take on history. But while there's definitely some back-patting — the film heaps particularly high praise on Beauty and the Beast (available this fall on Disney Blu-ray and Disney DVD!) — the doc is admirably up-front about the interpersonal conflicts that ended the second great era of Disney animation.

Combining home movies (that's John Lasseter behind the camera), corporate videos, photos, news clips and footage from animated films with voice-overs from recent interviews, the film begins as Disney is attempting to reinvent itself in the age of the Hollywood blockbuster. After the arrival of executives Frank Wells and Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg was brought in by Eisner to lead the studios. The first thing Eisner told Katzenberg was to fix the ailing animation department. Katzenberg issued a challenge: "We've got to wake Sleeping Beauty."

The animators saw this as an "invasion from Hollywood," and their fears were only exacerbated as they were kicked out of the building they had occupied since the days of Walt. Shipped off to a "gutted wreck of a building" and put under intense pressure from Katzenberg and Peter Schneider, the animators actually ended up flourishing in the crucible. The stress was enormous, but the gains were spectacular. Oddly enough, this echoed the days when Walt was directly involved with animation, before his focus turned to the parks and urban planning.

As success returned to the animation division (and in turn the company), egos grew along with bank accounts and merchandising lines. While the corporate intrigue at Disney grew almost Shakespearean in its fury and intensity, Waking Sleeping Beauty only scratches the surface of the interpersonal conflicts of Eisner & Co. (For a fascinatingly in-depth look at the Jacobean power plays of the Eisner era, read James B. Stewart's Disney War.) Some of the best critiques are from the animators' simple caricatures, pictures that indeed speak a thousand words.

Director Hahn lays out the story using the successful Disney formula: Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah moments tempered with death and villains. That gives Waking Sleeping Beauty a True Hollywood Story vibe that can be enjoyed by anyone interested in ... well, a true Hollywood story. But with its behind-the-scenes footage of important figures in Disney history, the doc is a must-see for Disney fans who desire to venture backstage and see the dark rides with the lights on.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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