4 stars, (NR)
Pixar won its fifth Best Animated Film Oscar last year. In this time when animated films are winning countless awards and receiving more critical praise than most live action pictures, it's difficult to imagine that animation was once a struggling enterprise. Even harder to accept is the fact that Disney (Pixar's former partner) experienced the brunt of that struggle. The documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty is a rich, refreshingly adult look at Disney from 1984-1994, exposing the harsh realities behind its movie magic. Fortunately, director Don Hahn keeps cynicism in check and shows that good can come from an industry scarred by ego clashes and power struggles.
The most significant revelation of the film is that the Disney animation department is not the fairy tale landscape we all imagined it to be. In reality, it consisted of nerdy guys running around shabby offices wondering if they still had a job to go to the next day. The reason for this concern was studio chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg's view that animated films were an albatross around Disney's neck. At the time, they cost the studio more money than they made. Obviously, Katzenberg didn't care about the films' artistic merits (In his words, he aimed for the "Bank of America Awards, not the Academy Awards").
This brutally honest, critical depiction of Katzenberg is only a small part of this warts-and-all expose. The film mainly revolves around the irony that making children's films is a very adult business with real, sometimes harsh consequences - long hours, cold dinners, financial failures or worse yet, artistic ones. The animators confess their frustrations and studio heads reveal their resentments toward each other. (Tensions rise particularly when CEO Michael Eisner announces the building of a new animation department without Katzenberg's approval.)
Director Don Hahn also reveals that Disney was not without tragedies. The untimely deaths of Disney president Frank Wells and songwriter Howard Ashman give the film a looming melancholy, reminding us once again that life unfortunately isn't a Disney movie.
Fortunately, Disney rose up from the rubble caused by these deaths and tense business atmosphere. The studio returned in the '90s with what may very well be its best animated films: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King.
Director Don Hahn does not overstate these triumphs or tribulations. The film is what few documentaries are - fair and balanced. Even Jeffrey Katzenberg is shown seeking redemption for his greed and ignorance regarding the work of animators.
To learn even more about the hard truth of Disney animation, join the Q and A session with the film's producer and former Disney studio chief, Peter Schneider. Schneider, a Purdue alumnus, will host two screenings of the film at Purdue's Fowler Hall on Thursday, April 15 at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. This event is free and open to the public. Do not miss this inspiring, emotional documentary about the films you loved as a child and the people who made them.