Many people have seen at least one Disney Renaissance movie in their lifetime. Even if you have never heard of Disney’s rise of animation in the late ’80’s referred to as a renaissance, you are still aware of such classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and of course, The Lion King. Many of us twenty somethings grew up watching these films and even seeing them in movie theaters across the country. Hell, I remember my dad taking me to go see Lion King as a child on a Saturday night and having all the screenings be sold out (it was showing on four screens in the theater, mind you); we had to come back for a matinee the next day (which was still packed). And don’t tell me you’ve never sung along to “A Whole New World” or “Hakuna Matata” while in the shower. However, what we are not aware of is how the Disney Renaissance came to pass, and all of the struggle that the Disney as a company went through to keep Walt’s dream of animation alive.
I was lucky enough to catch a certain documentary in theaters a few years ago that addresses the rise of animation in the Disney company, aptly named Waking Sleeping Beauty. This documentary was an official selection at some film festivals of note (Toronto International Film Festival being one of them), and was released in limited theaters for a short time in early 2010. Disney didn’t make a lot of money off of it, but the story is one that the public was not made privy to until very recently. It was even narrated by John Lasseter and Roy E. Disney (before he passed).
We never heard of Roy E. Disney’s struggle as Vice President of the Disney Corporation, and how Michael Eisner pushed the Disney Animation studios into making feature length films once again. Or how Don Bluth took almost half of Disney’s animators in the early 1980s and created a rival animation studio. Walt Disney had founded his studios by making animated shorts (Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck being his staple characters), and eventually the first feature length animated film ever made, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But his love of animation didn’t exactly carry over once he passed in 1966. Disney set the standard for animation at a time when televisions needed shorts to fill the airwaves. And his features were famous worldwide for the lovable characters and catchy tunes. But the Disney corporation hit a slump in the 1970s and 1980s, and with the exception of Fox and the Hound, they had little to do with animation at the time. The Disney Animation Department decided to put their all into a feature length film once again and put all of their luck riding on The Black Cauldron. Jeffrey Katzenberg was hired by Eisner to revolutionize the Animation Division of the Disney corporation. He taught the animators (and it sounds silly to say) how to edit their own work and make a story plausible, instead of relying on animatics alone. Something they apparently were not taught by the great animators who worked on such Disney classics as AristoCats and Robin Hood (which is also why you see the same dance movements in both of these films party scenes. The animators used the same general dance animatic for the older films so they would have to do less animating for the final product). He became the hard ass in the office, which was something the animators sorely needed. Katzenberg even influenced the use of CGI in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to save time for the background animators, which eventually became an industry standard across the board.
Waking Sleeping Beauty goes into incredible detail of the fragility of the situation, and how if this last bid on the animation department with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast didn’t work, they would be shut down for good. This documentary is an amazing portrayal of the behind the scenes of animation, and how much went on behind the most beloved animated films of the Disney Renaissance era. A group of people put their hearts and souls into these films, and one even died to make Beauty and the Beast a reality. These aren’t just reimagined fairy tales; they represent an entire genre that has not been successfully recreated since.