It was 1985 when Disney Animation suffered its most troubling setback, releasing “The Black Cauldron” — an expensive, long-in-the-making adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” — to middling reviews and woeful box-office returns.
Adding insult to injury, former Disney employee Don Bluth, who left the Mouse House to work with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, upstaged them a year later with his own animated offering, the funnier (and more profitable) “An American Tail.”
As Brad Bird, who directed “The Incredibles” (2004), puts it, Disney was, at the time, “on autopilot.” But that was about to change, as chronicled in the fascinating new documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty.”
“The era from 1984 to 1994 was akin to a gasoline fire,” says Don Hahn, who directed the film. “It was a time of high productivity, stressful debate on every creative grain of the movie, and intense pressure to out-do the last accomplishment. It was chaotic, exhausting and thrilling.”
Hahn would know. During that turbulent decade, he helped contribute to the rebirth of Disney’s animated brand as the producer of “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and “The Lion King” (1994).
Looking back, Hahn and producer Peter Schneider, a former Disney Animation president, decided it was a time worth revisiting, using an impressive wealth of archival footage filmed at the time.
Did they realize back then that there was a rich story unfolding before them?
“We didn’t know that this bootleg footage, shot illegally in the hallways of Disney, was going to yield a story,” says Hahn, who came to the studio in 1976 and will produce Tim Burton’s upcoming animated comedy, “Frankenweenie.” “We didn’t have any feeling that something great was happening.”
What “Waking” captures, besides the revitalization and growth of Disney Animation, is the simmering rivalry between high-ranking executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney, founder Walt’s nephew, which came to a boil after the release of “Lion King.”
“It’s really a classic Hollywood story in that it reminds us that this town was built by a bunch of ambitious, eccentric and passionate artists, which included Walt Disney and his successors,” says veteran journalist Patrick Pacheco, who conducted the interviews that provide the movie’s informative commentary.
“So many people grew up with the movies created during that period,” adds Schneider, who came to the studio in 1985 and left to form his own production company in 2001. “This is the story behind those films and it’s a story you can’t get from any other source. In the ’50s, Walter Cronkite had a series called ‘You Are There.’ Well, it’s Disney, 1984 to 1994. And you are there.”
IF YOU GO
Waking Sleeping Beauty
Starring Don Hahn, Howard Ashman, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney
Written and directed by Don Hahn
Running time 1 hour 26 minutes