Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Diversion 2.0 Thirty Day Movie Challenge -- Day 16

Day 16 – A Documentary/Biopic

Documentaries don’t provide much escapism, as any genre of film based on recording the goings-on of everyday life shouldn’t. In truth, most of my experience watching documentaries come from DVD bonus materials, which really aren’t the same thing, but are closer to truth-scribing than most of the junk that I watch is. That said, sometimes a doc comes along that provides me with subject material I’m interested in, and for those, I generally try to make time. Today’s entry is one of those films.

Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)

I’m a bit of a Disney-phile. Obviously. I tore apart Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney both on print and audiobook, and delved into every special feature of every Platinum- and Diamond-edition DVD and Blu-ray release of Disney’s Animated Feature canon. It only makes sense, then, that I would jump on the chance to watch a documentary on Walt Disney Studios 1984-1994, the time period when Disney pulled itself out of the can and revolutionized animation as we know it today.

Directed by Don Hahn, producer of his fair share of Disney features, Waking Sleeping Beauty details the conditions the studio was in leading up to the 80’s (Don Bluth’s departure, falling morale, waning interest in animation), as well as the arrival of Jeffery Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, two executives from regular Hollywood trying their hand in a company down on its luck. It tells of how both Katzenberg and Eisner didn’t have a clue on how to run an animation studio, and how they hired Peter Schneider, who helped get the animation department back on track. Lastly, it concludes with the death of Frank G. Wells, the peace-keeper between Katzenberg and Eisner, and bows out before Katzenberg left the company to help form Dreamworks and Eisner let his ego and “business smarts” get further and further out of control.

Waking Sleeping Beauty does a good job of putting a human face on the backstage Disney studio, such as Pete Scheider (left) and Roy E. Disney (right).

Let’s assume for a second that you’re not a Disney fan, or rather, an ardent, passionate follower of the Mouse House. Perhaps you saw Aladdin or The Lion King when you were younger, but don’t really do the Disney thing nowadays. I would still recommend the crap out of this movie to you. For one, the rags-to-riches story that was Disney 1984-1994 is a thrilling one, full of drama and worthy of a movie: once a mighty powerhouse, Disney was faced with failing relevancy, with talks of closing the studio, before it was brought back from the brink by a new creative team. Second, it sheds some light (mostly shot on home video by employees) on the working conditions and studio operations during a time that produced some of Disney’s greatest pictures, and Gen Y-ers may find themselves recognizing some of the films brought up during Waking Sleeping Beauty. Lastly, contrary to many self-promoting behind-the-scenes looks, Waking Sleeping Beauty is surprisingly frank when it comes to self-criticism and not sugar-coating the happenings at the studio; for a company notorious for sanitising away its own nasty bits, Waking Sleeping Beauty is a surprisingly daring and even-handed film.

Casual animation fans will recognize some of the faces seen during Waking Sleeping Beauty, including John Lasseter, Alan Menkin, and Tim Burton, among many, many other important, though not as well-known, head animators, directors, composers, and more. Waking Sleeping Beauty even covered a few things that I didn’t know, and while I don’t claim to be an end-all-be-all source on all things Disney, I sure as hell didn’t expect to be surprised by the info as often as I was.

If takes a lot to get me into non-fiction, but Waking Sleeping Beauty has a great story, and makes a pretty nifty film out of it. Disney lovers and non-fans alike will appreciate the film’s approachability, straightforward tone, and wealth of info on one of the 90’s most powerful and storied companies.

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