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When Disney cartoons became reanimated

It was like any other class reunion -- friends who hadn’t seen each other for decades catching up while “When You Wish Upon a Star” played in the background. But even though there also was talk of old wounds and slights, this holiday-season gathering wasn’t marking the anniversary of any high school or college graduation. Instead, the several hundred people crowding into Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre had come together to revisit one of the best comeback stories in show business history: the resurrection of Walt Disney Animation.

The reunion was actually a screening of “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” a new documentary recounting the 10 years starting in 1984 when Disney’s animation arm was transformed from a rudderless shadow of its former self (the dark and disturbing “The Black Cauldron” marking the nadir) into the creative and financial heart (with the life-affirming “The Lion King” at the apex) of the sprawling entertainment conglomerate.

Scheduled to be released theatrically March 26, “Waking Sleeping Beauty” will premiere to local audiences today at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. While the movie is not likely to generate as much “is-that-fool-based-on-me?” chatter as 1992’s “The Player,” the documentary does offer an unusually forthright peek into one of the most contentious but ultimately fruitful periods in modern Hollywood.

Inside the El Capitan at the screening for Disney animators several weeks ago, the atmosphere was festive. “Most of you are in this movie,” the film’s producer, Peter Schneider, told the veteran animators before the movie commenced. Added the film’s director, Don Hahn: “It’s your movie.”

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The introduction was only partly true -- “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is Schneider and Hahn’s story as well. The two were witnesses to and participants in the animation turnaround: Schneider was president of Disney animation during its resurgence, while Hahn was a producer of the division’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” blockbusters.

Given their backgrounds and Schneider’s explanation to the El Capitan crowd of why he made the documentary -- journalists covering the studio during that time loved recounting Disney’s boardroom fights, “but I never felt they captured the joy and beauty of making these movies,” Schneider said -- you might expect “Waking Sleeping Beauty” to be self-serving hagiography, a wart-free portrait of artists in all their animation glory. In addition, the film was financed by Disney, which also will distribute it.

What’s surprising about the documentary, though, is that it’s not all singing squirrels.

“That period was very good and very hard,” Ron Clements, a director and writer of “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” said after the screening. “It was stressful, but it was a very fun period.”

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“Waking Sleeping Beauty” doesn’t paint over the conflicts that not only were inevitable in Disney’s resurgence but also were an outcome of the turnaround itself, as the studio’s most senior executives (Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Roy E. Disney) squabbled over who deserved credit for the renaissance.

“We were hyper aware of not making a puff piece,” Hahn said in an interview.

“Waking Sleeping Beauty” tracks two parallel plots. The first and most central to the documentary is how low Disney’s animation division had fallen in the years leading to the 1980s -- “given up for dead,” the movie states -- and what it took to restore the division to its former brilliance. The second story line follows the studio managers determined to bring the unit back and how their infighting ultimately split Disney apart.

The documentary opens with the 1994 premiere of “The Lion King,” which would go on to gross more than $780 million worldwide and make vastly more money as a Broadway musical. “To an outsider, it looked like a perfect world,” Hahn says in the film’s narration. “But backstage, the tension had reached a peak.”

The movie then takes audiences behind the Disney curtain.

A big shake-up

Though Pixar Animation Studios (now a part of Disney) currently enjoys the best track record among any filmmaking company, what the company founded by Walt Disney began to accomplish in animation 25 years ago is scarcely less extraordinary -- especially given the division’s doldrums.

Once the studio’s artistic and economic lynch pin, animation had tumbled from the cultural landmarks of the 1930s and ‘40s (“Fantasia,” " Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Dumbo”) to “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Black Cauldron,” movies that attracted as little critical attention as it did box office. As badly as the Disney animated films were performing, morale among the filmmakers was arguably worse; the animators were eventually kicked off Disney’s Burbank lot, to scruffy Glendale offices.

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As the movie -- composed of archival footage and off-camera interviews of the animators and executives -- makes clear, the animators (including a young Tim Burton and John Lasseter) weren’t pushed to do their best: long lunches and midday volleyball games rather than spirited story meetings and motivated brainstorming were the norm. Competitors were taking advantage: Disney exile Don Bluth’s “An American Tail” beat Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective” at the box office, and the low-rent “The Care Bears Movie” even toppled “The Black Cauldron.”

That devil-may-care passivity changed in a 1984 shake-up. New Chief Executive Officer Eisner (a hard-charging star at ABC and Paramount Pictures) and studio chief Katzenberg (Eisner’s tireless, demanding Paramount partner) arrived in Burbank, and Disney (Walt’s nephew) was put in charge of animation, which had been drifting without a leader.

Eisner is described in the film by Roy Disney as “a little bit nuts” while animator Glen Keane labels Katzenberg “a maniac.” Hahn says of Katzenberg in the movie, “You never knew if he was going to hug you or kick you.”

What Eisner and Katzenberg might have lacked in people skills, the two more than made up for in ambition and focus: They pushed their animators harder than they’d ever been pushed -- Sunday meetings at 8 a.m., for starters -- and the results, while incremental at first, were soon forthcoming. The animators rebelled over the boot camp discipline but soon realized they had been artistically unleashed. (Eisner and Katzenberg declined to comment for this story; Disney died in December.)

There was no fixing some long-gestating movies whose DNA was terminally damaged (including “The Great Mouse Detective”), but the division’s new productions held better prospects, thanks in large part to the songs of Howard Ashman. Still, there were some nearly ruinous decisions. Katzenberg wanted to eliminate Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Part of Your World,” one of the signature songs from 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” feeling it stopped the movie. At one point, “The Lion King” was considered the troubled movie, while 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the only animated movie nominated for the best picture Oscar, was once going to be made without musical numbers.

As amusing in hindsight as those near missteps appear, the fighting among Eisner, Katzenberg and Disney was a more serious matter. In a Shakespearean twist, the kingdom they created was undone by the results themselves -- they essentially succeeded too well. When Frank Wells, Disney’s peacekeeping Disney president and chief operating officer, died in a helicopter accident in 1994, the simmering internal feuds boiled over, as pettiness replaced professionalism -- Eisner, for instance, announced that Disney was building a new animation studio without sharing his plans with Katzenberg.

Before long, Katzenberg, denied Wells’ job by Eisner, would leave Disney and help launch DreamWorks, now the biggest competitor to Disney’s once near-total animation monopoly.

Telling the full story

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Schneider and Hahn said that though it took some work to persuade Eisner to participate, Katzenberg was generous with his time and input. The two were also careful to include unflattering glimpses of their own behavior; Schneider in one documentary scene lashes out at his animation staff over a spoof memo sent under Schneider’s name.

“But we did not do this to do a good guys and bad guys story,” Schneider said.

He said he was inspired to make the movie in large part in reaction to James Stewart’s book “Disney War,” largely a takedown of Eisner’s reign. Some of the animators in the film said they believed the film fairly balanced the creative accomplishments with the professional sniping.

“I was impressed with its honesty. It definitely felt fair,” said Rob Minkoff, the director (with Roger Allers) of “The Lion King,” who arrived at Disney two years before Eisner, Katzenberg and Disney. “Everybody who had been there just desperately wanted it to change. There was this pent-up energy unleashed by Jeffrey and Michael. I suppose if Frank Wells hadn’t died in that helicopter crash, the story would be different.”

Schneider said the film is particularly relevant to today’s Hollywood. “It’s a cautionary tale,” he said. “It’s about what happens when growth is the goal as opposed to making great art -- and then worrying over where the credit resides.”

john.horn@latimes.com


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