Sunday, December 5, 2010

Waking Sleeping Beauty: Requiem for a Studio

Watching this film, I got the feeling that Don Hahn and Peter Schneider made it because they realized their best days were behind them and they were looking to celebrate and mourn the end of their greatest successes.

This film covers the period of Disney animation history from the change in management in 1984, when Frank Wells, Michael Eisner, Roy Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over from Ron Miller until Katzenberg's resignation after The Lion King. Because the film is bookended by these two changes in management, the film gives the impression that the rise and fall of the studio during this period was due to the people at the top. While they undoubtedly had a strong influence, such as deciding which films were made, the quality of those films was determined by the literally hundreds of people who created them.

Those people are portrayed as bystanders to management politics and the film is curiously selective about who gets identified. I don't believe that Andreas Deja or Eric Goldberg, while they are shown, ever have their names on screen and (except for a deleted clip in the extras) Goldberg is not heard either. I spent a great deal of the film wondering who I was looking at or knowing and waiting in vain for the film to identify them. In an odd way, the film is like a monster movie where giant executives face off while anonymous artists run for cover. Even when the artists are identified, there is no sense of what part they played in the making of the films or their individual sensibilities.

The film is fascinating for anyone interested in animation history, but I think that overall the film is a failure. It doesn't explain why the animated features became successful except to talk about management shaking up the animation staff and the presence of Howard Ashman. There is no doubt that Ashman was a major influence in terms of the musical numbers and story construction, but he had nothing to do with the creation of the visuals. Those are left unexplained.

The film takes for granted the status of the animated features, measuring them only by box office. There's no further attempt to evaluate them in terms of quality or dissect why some were more successful than others.

The management infighting that led to the collapse of Disney animation is spelled out and no one comes off looking good. Once Frank Wells died, the remaining executive team was jealous of each other and couldn't put aside their differences for the good of the stockholders or the art form. The studio may have run out of energy anyway, but it took only seven years from The Lion King to Atlantis: The Lost Empire. For an explanation of that decline, see Dream On, Silly Dreamer.

There is one segment in the extras that shows perfectly what's missing from this film. The recording session for The Little Mermaid's song "Part of Your World" was videotaped. Inside the recording booth, Howard Ashman and Jodi Benson work on getting the interpretation right amidst the chatter from the control room. While Benson hasn't yet nailed what Ashman is looking for, her performance is superb. Her voice is beautiful and her phrasing is masterful. Music is more cinematic than animation in that it can be created in real time, but this is perhaps the only example on the DVD of the creative act, the thing at the center of the films that this documentary is supposed to be celebrating. The Disney artists were Benson's equal in their own field, though the film doesn't acknowledge this. No matter how sharp Wells, Eisner, Katzenberg, and Disney were, they were not the ones writing, directing or drawing. In this film, all the glory goes to the jockeys and too little to the horses.

It's only the popularity of the films covered in this documentary that justify its existence. Few would care to see a documentary about Hanna Barbera during the same time period. But as this film does little to explain the success of the animated features from 1984-'94, what's left is little more than a souvenir for the crew and those fans with a hunger for a look behind the scenes.

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