It's hard to believe that 30 years ago the Walt Disney Company - corporate colossus of film, television, music, theater, real estate - was all but forgotten in the entertainment world. But after Walt Disney died in 1966, the company drifted, so that by the late 1970s, Disney's film output was largely reduced to shlocky kiddie entertainments like The Cat From Outer Space.
The decline extended to the animated division, which must have stung, since Walt Disney made his reputation with sophisticated feature-length animated films like Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But by the 1970s legendary Disney animators like John Lounsbery and Les Clark were dying or retiring, and while animated films of that period like The Rescuers had their charms, they weren't Fantasia.
The striking documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty begins at Disney's nadir in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then tells how, just a few years later, the company's fortunes rose astronomically with the hit animated features The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Waking Sleeping Beauty is directed and narrated by veteran Disney producer Don Hahn, who conveys much of the story in archival interviews with Disney principals like CEO Michael Eisner, film division head Jeffrey Katzenberg and vice chairman and animation chief Roy Disney, nephew of Walt. As compelling as the interviews is the plentiful home-video footage of young Disney animators goofing off at work. They're a bright, energetic crowd.
Much of the credit for the company's turnaround goes to Roy Disney, who brought in slick managers like Eisner to run Disney like a modern Hollywood studio. Eisner in turn tapped Katzenberg, who, depending on whom you ask, either is or isn't responsible for the animation department's rebirth. Katzenberg clearly was a polarizing figure, and Disney artists wickedly skewered him in devastating sketches, many of which are seen here. With his thinning hair and giant 1980s glasses, he was easy to caricature. Also seen in caricature is the lyricist Howard Ashman, who with composer Alan Menken brought a Broadway sensibility to the new Disney films. In one of the saga's sad chapters, Ashman died of AIDS in 1991, and video footage of movie stars wearing red ribbons at awards ceremonies evokes that tragic era.
The revival of Disney animation was dramatic, but it did not last. Hahn's story ends in 1994, when Katzenberg left Disney to form Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. After that, Disney animation declined anew, and by 2004 the company had gotten out of hand-drawn feature animation altogether in favor of the computer techniques pioneered by Pixar. The company returned to traditional animation last year with The Princess and the Frog, which fared well commercially and critically. But it will be tough for the company to match that remarkable earlier run.