I saw the movie Waking Sleeping Beauty a few weeks ago which takes a look at Disney’s Animation Studio from the years 1984, when it hit it’s lowest point after releasing The Black Cauldron (which got out-grossed by The Care Bears), to 1994 when it released it 4th straight mega blockbuster, The Lion King.
In 1984 Disney’s animation studio was filled with old-timers and young eager newcomers such as Brad Bird, Jon Lasseter, and Tim Burton. The old timers lacked the passion and the youngsters lacked the experience. For years they were at an impasse and it resulted in really lame, tired movies. Disney recognized this and hired Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jefferey Katzenberg. The new brass didn’t immediately recognize the importance of animation, nor really understand it. They did know that change was needed and went about the standard “weed, feed and seed” strategy that I’ve seen in my startup experience. This is a technique of getting rid of the old/bad talent (weed), bringing in new hires (seed) and empowering those who have great ideas (feed). It almost always works.
What makes the film interesting is that even though this is a documentary, the footage is all in the time period. There are no talking heads in 2009 telling us how it is. It’s only interviews from the 80’s with all its hair, sytles and the culture.
The animation workers had to endure quite a bit from 1980 to 1988 when they produced their first hit in decades, The Little Mermaid. Bringing in outside song writers for Mermaid proved to be a stroke of genius. From that film they gained confidence and experience and then scored another massive hit with Aladin. After Aladin, they immediately started working on Beauty and The Beast this time with some swagger. When Beauty premiered at the NY Film Festival in draft form, it received a standing ovation and went on to be one of the rare animated films to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. After Beauty and The Beast, egos were looming large. Eisner was jealous of Katzenberg for promoting himself as the head of the Animation studio and the animators all were getting agents, high salaries, and big heads. Despite that, you could tell that they knew they had something special and they were able to rally together once more to score another major hit with Lion King – which shattered all major box office records at the time. After the release of the Lion King, Frank Wells died, Katzenberg quit, and the animators fell under their own egotistical weight.
I saw the film with the director/producer who worked at Disney during this entire period. In his Q&A afterwards commented that everyone knew they were doing something special, but in the end you can’t keep a winning team together for too long – talented people just become too expensive. In any industry or endeavor, you can’t keep a winning team together forever. Think of the Red Sox, Shaq & Kobe, Microsoft, etc.
This is a fun film to watch. It captures an amazing run of films we all know and love, and the turmoil, passion and business antics that went into making Disney a phenomenon.