As I mentioned briefly last night, I was privileged to attend a screening of the new documentary WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY last evening on the Disney Studios lot. I received the free tickets thanks to my participation in the Disney Movie Rewards program. I'll have more to say about the film itself later in this post.
The drive from Orange County to Burbank was a bit of a challenge, as a leg of the trip that typically takes 15 or 20 minutes took an hour and a half! Fortunately I had allowed ample time for bad traffic and, after a brief detour in Los Angeles to pick up my daughter at USC, we pulled up at the Disney gate precisely on time, two and a half hours after I'd left home.
After parking in the guest lot just inside the main gate, we were invited to walk through the lot to the Frank G. Wells Building, where the movie was screened.
The Disney lot is small compared to other lots I've visited; it looks more like a college campus than a movie studio, with tree-covered walkways, park benches, and a large, inviting commissary. In our walks back and forth across the lot we were able to see notable studio landmarks I've read about over the years; it was almost surreal to actually be standing on the Disney lot seeing them for myself.
The biggest thrill for me was seeing Pluto's Corner, with its famous street signs designating Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive. We also saw the Hyperion Bungalow, which dates from the original Disney lot on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles, and we walked by the animation building which doubled as the high school in the TV series ANNETTE.
The Disney Archives are housed in the Wells Building, and there are several interesting displays from the Archives in the lobby. One display was of famous hats from Disney films, including Fess Parker's coonskin cap from DAVY CROCKETT and Mary Poppins' hat with cherries. There were also several display cases of costumes; I especially enjoyed seeing Giselle's "curtains" dress from ENCHANTED.
After the screening we were able to explore Legends Plaza, which is something of a cross between the Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There are columns throughout the plaza covered with plaques honoring those who have made great contributions to Disney history. Many of those who were honored, including Fred MacMurray and Julie Andrews, contributed hand prints to their plaques. We were touched by the large wreath on a stand next to Fess Parker's plaque.
The lot's history and buildings are described in a post at Disney Fans Insider. It didn't seem appropriate to us to take a camera inside ourselves last night, but there are excellent photos here of the Legends Plaza and the Wells Building lobby; and here are more photos of the lot, including Pluto's Corner and the Hyperion Bungalow.
The screening of WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY was held in the Frank G. Wells Screening Room, with director Don Hahn introducing the movie and answering questions afterwards. My daughter had missed the chance to see Hahn present the film at Leonard Maltin's class as USC, as she had to make a trip to the airport that evening, and yet she ended up seeing it in a much more intimate setting at the studio; funny how things work out! And to top the night off, each guest was sent home with a WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY poster.
The documentary is about the resurgence of Disney animation beginning in the mid '80s; Disney animation had reached its nadir with THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985), and the studio was threatened with purchase and dismantling by a corporate raider when Roy Disney rescued the company and brought in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells to run it. (Years later, Roy would once again rescue the company by dispatching Eisner, but that happens after the film ends...) Roy Disney, Eisner, and Wells, along with Jeffrey Katzenberg, led the company to a "second golden era" of Disney animation, with titles including THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991), ALADDIN (1992), and THE LION KING (1994).
The film ends in 1994, when the triumph of THE LION KING was overshadowed by the tragic death of Frank Wells in a helicopter accident. Within the next few months Michael Eisner had a heart attack and Katzenberg left the company; excellent movies continued to be produced, but the focus largely turned to Pixar's computerized animation after the Pixar hit TOY STORY was released in 1995.
The story is told using home movies (some of which were shot by a young John Lasseter), Disney archival material, and news footage. New audio interviews were recorded for use on the soundtrack, but there are no new on-screen "talking head" segments. Hahn laughed that Eisner initially contributed in a "passive-aggressive" way, saying he wasn't interested in being interviewed but then providing a tape of an old interview he gave Diane Sawyer.
Given the film's limited 88-minute running time, it doesn't contain a great deal of specific information about the making of the films. (The place to go for that is the extras on DVD sets such as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.) Most of the creative sequences focus on the brilliant lyricist Howard Ashman, whose death in 1991 was a great loss to Disney. The film's main focus is on the overall studio environment and behind-the-scenes politics which fostered the surge in filmmaking excellence. In some ways the documentary felt like only part of the story -- it could easily have spent another half hour or so on topics such as the films' creation, the post-1994 corporate battles, and the impact of the computerized animation revolution -- but the movie does an excellent job presenting its particular slice of Disney history.
A side note: the movie caused me to muse a bit on the creative process; for instance, what inspires someone to look at an animated crab and decide "Let's make him Jamaican!"?
WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY opens Friday, March 26th, in limited engagements in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.
Reviews have been published by the L.A. Times (an "unexpectedly fine film") and San Francisco Chronicle ("a thoughtfully detailed study...a pleasure").
In response to my question, Mr. Hahn said the film will be out on DVD in August 2010.
Previous posts on WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY: February 10, 2010; February 20, 2010; and March 15, 2010.