Teddy bears. That's what did it. Those villainous, multicolored teddy bears. The turning point for Disney animation came in 1985, after Disney had pumped $44 million into The Black Cauldron, only to see it slaughtered at the box office by The Care Bears Movie.
This humiliation is where the full-length documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, made in part by former Disney Animation president Peter Schneider (above, with Roy Disney), begins—with Disney's animators exiled from their deluxe studios to drab warehouses in Glendale. Through archival footage, original sketches, behind-the-scenes vignettes and interviews, "you realize these were nutty, wonderful, fabulous people," Schneider tells the Bohemian by phone, "and I think they truly felt their job was over." It was only through their own determination, unhindered creativity and freedom that those animators ushered Disney into a second golden era; namely, they made The Little Mermaid.
This renaissance, which included Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, is the timeline of Waking Sleeping Beauty. But it's the young lions—the margarita-drinking, Apocalypse Now&–quoting animators who spend their free time drawing vile caricatures of studio heads—that provide the rarely-seen human face. One such talent is Tim Burton; another, John Lasseter, who sneaks a Super 8 camera on the Disney lot to capture the atmosphere. (Filming on the lot was explicitly forbidden by Disney at the time.) Another valuable savior of the era is lyricist Howard Ashman, the guiding force behind The Little Mermaid. Ashman died of AIDS while finishing Beauty and the Beast, and "I think it's a huge loss," says Schneider.
What Waking Sleeping Beauty doesn't do is get nasty. "Being there, there were no good guys or bad guys," Schneider says. What he calls the "drama" inside Disney has been chronicled elsewhere, and "this really was an opportunity to find the joy—and the frustration, and human foibles in all of us—in the process of what we did," he says. "No one set out to be a villain. There are no villains. Know what I mean?"
Peter Schneider conducts a Q&A following the 4:30pm and 7pm opening screenings of Waking Sleeping Beauty on Thursday, May 20, at the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas. 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.