In the end title sequence of Don Hahn's excellent documentary about Walt Disney animation's troubled resurgence in the 80s and 90s, Waking Sleeping Beauty, one interviewee gruffly asks, "Before we go any further, am I allowed to talk about Jeffrey Katzenberg?" It's a pertinent question about a studio that exerts such an iron grip over how its history is presented that many key players are often removed from it altogether (how many people remember that the studio started life as the Disney Brothers studio or that Roy Sr. was a key player to the end?), and its inclusion makes it clear that, while a highly personal account, this isn't the usual studio whitewash. As such it's genuinely surprising to see Disney themselves producing and releasing a film about the clashing egos that helped rescue the Happy Kingdom from disaster - though not without casualties - before greater success and the need to be top dog turned it back into the Unhappy Kingdom.
Hahn was the producer of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and the film is a combination of unauthorised home movie footage, TV interviews and news reports and brief extracts from the films accompanied by voice-over interviews from the principals, some new, some archive. It starts in the dark days of the late 70s, when Disney management was stuck in a rut and the animation division was losing its market and its talent, but the story really kicks off with the huge culture shock when a palace coup led to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg entering the picture, kicking the animators out of the animation building and exiling them to a low-rent warehouse off the lot, fuelling the animators determination to fight back by making better pictures. Unfortunately the new management hadn't a clue about animation...
It's not the complete story, skirting over many key battles like the nightmarish production problems on Aladdin because Hahn wasn't directly involved, but the personal approach it takes to the management infighting and the passions of those caught in the ensuing maelstrom is genuinely revealing and even, when dealing with the death of lyricist Howard Ashman, touching. It's one of the few times the sheer physical and emotional strain of animation has been dealt with, with animators overworking themselves until they couldn't even hold a cup of coffee in their drawing hand or the hot-house pressure destroying family lives. Yet it acknowledges that the animators themselves had as much to do with it as the management in their obsessive desire to top themselves and their constant infighting over credit. It even, astonishingly for a Disney film, criticises Walt himself for not giving enough credit to others (that it's Roy Disney making the comment probably helped sneak that one through). And ultimately it's the issue of credit and ego that would destroy the team that took the animation division from being outgrossed by The Care Bears Movie to earning Best Picture Oscar nominations and $750m at the worldwide box-office with a single film.
The distance from the events has allowed Hahn a more philosophical historical perspective on the increasingly bitter and counter-productive power struggles. It gives the oft-overlooked Peter Schneider (who produced this documentary) and the dangerously underestimated Roy Disney their due and is surprisingly even-handed about Katzenberg in particular, dealing as much with the players' strengths as their weaknesses. Rather than looking for villains to demonise, much of the time it lets people hang themselves. The film doesn't need to underline the hypocrisies all the players display. Eisner constantly complains about Katzenberg hogging publicity and taking credit, oblivious to the plethora of footage of him taking the credit for everything from films to theme parks on TV. There's one particularly telling moment of pettiness during the memorial service for Frank Wells, the much-admired and unusually humble studio executive who kept the various egos in check, when Roy Disney won't start his eulogy until Eisner gives him a bigger introduction.
Hahn's not entirely immune to the mild bit of ego himself: while he regards Oliver and Company as a crucial step in reversing the animation department's fortunes, many regard the lacklustre effort as part of the problem rather than the solution. Similarly the lingering hatred of Don Bluth, who led a mutiny of Disney animators to start his own studio, leads to the very real role his competition had in forcing Disney to raise their game being completely ignored a little too readily: Bluth may never have lived up to his own promise, but it would take a decade for the increasingly unimaginative Disney animation to get to the level of classical artistry his Secret of NIMH displayed. But for the most part you don't get the feeling that this is about settling scores as it is about trying to make sense of how much success went so wrong.
It doesn't touch on the aftermath, assuming that it's all too well-known to animation fans. The success of The Lion King led to a massive increase in both budgets and expectations for animated features so that even a profitable $350m worldwide gross would be regarded as a disappointment that would hit the company's share price. Once again rivalry with other studios - both a resurgent Don Bluth and Katzenberg's startup rival DreamWorks Animation - would have the studio management running scared and changing their plans to compete with disastrous consequences while PIXAR and computer animation began to dominate, much to Eisner's anger, until he closed down Disney's hand-drawn animation arm completely, firing 1300 animators before losing his own job for (among other things) driving PIXAR away in a fit of pique. For a very personal - and unabashedly bitter - take on that story you need to find the non-Disney produced Dream On, Silly Dreamer, which is currently only available from Amazon.com.
The best thing about Waking Sleeping Beauty is that Hahn manages to turn what could have been a boardroom business story into a surprisingly compelling human one, and all in a very concise 88 minutes. There's a real sense of the people involved as imperfect human beings rather than caricatures, mixing their enthusiasm and their anger in equal measure, making it a story that's as involving as it is informative. It's certainly one of the finest documentaries about filmmaking I've ever seen.
Disney's DVD is another good package: audio commentary, genuinely interesting deleted scenes and some informative featurettes that compliment some of the issues raised in the feature. On a purely technical level the captions identifying the voice-over interviewees are almost illegible on DVD, but that's the only real downside to a documentary that's not just of interest to Disney fans.