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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Reality of a Re-Animation
by Donald Levit

A review of a recent biography of Hergé concluded that the creator’s life was insipid while the cartoon creation, "Tintin," excites readers worldwide. The same holds for Disney, in this case Don Hahn’s Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Not that the process of cartooning, key-animators, in-betweeners and cels, would not have made for fascinating viewing. For example, the documentary offers small whiffs and a rare sniff of a then-still-unfinished Beauty and the Beast at the New York Film Festival in 1991. For the rest, the eighty-six-minute feature falls far from the enchantment the public will enter expecting. It is for those (mostly insiders) who care about “Industry” wheeling-dealing among unfamiliar faces (unlike avuncular Walt’s). Or, indeed, about behind-the-public-façade of any gazillion-dollar corporation.

Walt ran the tight ship that defined family entertainment, but with its captain’s death in 1966 the enterprise foundered in shallows of mediocrity. Directed and co-produced by ex-insiders Hahn and Peter Schneider, this documentary chronicles the studio’s recapturing its dominance, albeit in a changed format.

It is not the explanation-by-demonstration of a conjurer’s sleight of hand, i.e., how the tricks were done. Rather, it is largely in-house home movies (by animator Randy Cartwright) that at the time were not to see the light of day and which cover the decade 1984-94 during which the Walt Disney Company reinvented itself and its products.

Certainly, rumblings were heard that Happy Valley was not so joyful as all that, and there were firings and resignations, relocations of personnel, departments and whole buildings. Nevertheless, at the same time The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, plus (through subsidiaries like Touchstone, Buena Vista and Hollywood) Splash, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Pretty Woman, Sister Act and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Euro Disney, Disney Channel, home videos and massive merchandising restored the logo signature as, with Coca-Cola’s, the most recognizable around.

At a price.

Its claim of “no talking heads, old guys reminiscing” to the contrary, WSB is voiceovers by some dozen-and-a-half (with Hahn’s connective narration), sometimes identified in comic-strip balloons. Voices culled from Patrick Pacheco’s sessions with over seventy-five interviewees, much of the visuals is merely shots of young employees goofing around even though we are told of the pressure they faced, the trembling hands with coffee cups, the long work hours away from families.

While ueber-famous entertainers show up for a frame or two, front and center are the governing triumvirate: major shareholder and vice chairman Roy E. Disney, son of Walt’s brother Roy and victor in a power struggle with Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller; chairman and CEO Michael D. Eisner, former president at Paramount; and Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of the movie division. Unrecognizable alongside the characters created by company talents, the three oversaw a period of expansion, immense profits and, publically traded since 1940, soaring share values.

To the film’s, and their, credit, the three comment freely on their contentious then-alliance. Diametric differences in plans for present and future, and in personalities and egos, were held in uneasy balance and check by “peacemaker” president Frank Wells, imported from Warner Brothers. But all was so strained, and had trickled down to employees, that rupture was inevitable, Wells’s death in a 1994 Nevada helicopter crash simply breaking the tottering camel’s back.

For fans of corporate-board bickering or students of business models and personnel politics, this film may be the ticket, even though too much is crammed in to dig very deep. If, on the other hand, yours is movie magic, better go rent Sleeping Beauty or take in The Princess and the Frog

(Released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and rated “PG” for thematic elements and brief mild language.)

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