Animation had sunk so low at Walt Disney by the early 1980s that artists at the studio that invented feature-length cartoons would invoke the name of a slumbering Disney princess, wondering if she ever would awaken.
The documentary "Waking Sleeping Beauty" picks up from there, relating the remarkable revival that led to such Disney smashes as "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King."
It has all the ingredients of a juicy Hollywood story. Money men vs. artists, as studio suits with giant egos told animators how to do their jobs. Established royalty vs. upstart princes, as Roy E. Disney, whose father had run the studio in its glory years alongside animation pioneer Walt Disney, formed an uneasy alliance with Disney's new star management team, including Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
And for all the rancor and tragedy that accompanied Disney's rebirth, the story has a happy ending: Animation is booming like never before, with cartoon blockbusters routinely topping $200 million at the domestic box office.
"Waking Sleeping Beauty" director Don Hahn never anticipated that sort of success when he was a Disney animator 25 years ago.
"We had debates, can an animated film ever make a hundred million dollars? It was universally laughed at as impossible," Hahn said.
An insider story
"Waking Sleeping Beauty" is a Hollywood story told by insiders. Hahn started at Disney in 1976 and went on to produce "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." "Waking Sleeping Beauty" producer Peter Schneider joined Disney in the Eisner era, his 17 years there including stints as president of animation and studio chairman.
Hahn and Schneider scored great access to Eisner, Katzenberg and other key surviving players, who contributed candid recollections.
The filmmakers also avoid the insider temptation to gloss over unpleasantries, providing a warts-and-all glimpse into Disney and its people. Animators recalled Schneider, for example, as bursting onto the Disney scene with a predatory smile and a temper that could cause triple-veined throbbing in his forehead.
The story unspools through home-movie footage, vintage interviews and news coverage, clever caricatures the animators drew of their bosses, and contemporary audio interviews.
Familiar names who flitted about the Disney halls in the early '80s make brief appearances. Among them: Tim Burton, who returned to Disney in the '90s for "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and again with this year's blockbuster "Alice in Wonderland"; and Pixar Animation mastermind John Lasseter — who started as a Disney animator before revolutionizing the industry with "Toy Story," the first computer-animated feature-length film.
Burton, who has seen "Waking Sleeping Beauty," said the documentary "brought home a lot of memories" and captured a sense of the lethargy that had set in at Disney.
"It was even worse than that, to be honest," Burton said.
How could this happen to the studio that launched feature animation with 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and made such classics as "Pinocchio," "Dumbo" and "Sleeping Beauty"?
From movies to theme parks
Before his death in 1966, Walt Disney's focus had shifted from animation to theme parks. In the 1970s into the '80s, the studio continued to make animated features, but less-ambitious ones such as "The Rescuers" and "The Fox and the Hound."
Amid fears that Disney might be broken up and sold piecemeal, Roy E. Disney lured Eisner from Paramount to take over as company chairman in 1984. Eisner brought along Katzenberg from Paramount, while Warner Bros. executive Frank Wells joined as Disney's president.
"Waking Sleeping Beauty" chronicles the growing pains that followed as the Disney lot became a curious mix of the remnants of Uncle Walt's pioneering animators — "kindly old men in cardigan sweaters" — and profanity-spewing executives in BMWs more interested in the green ink of dollars than the glorious colors of "Fantasia."
Somehow, it all came together, Disney's animation output soaring along with its revived live-action business. While Disney remains a key animation player, things began to fall apart again in the mid-1990s with ongoing power struggles, including a nasty rift between Eisner and Katzenberg, rebuffed in his bid to succeed Wells, who died in a helicopter crash.
Katzenberg left and joined Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to found DreamWorks, where he now runs his own animation monolith. Eisner left the studio in 2005 after a shareholder revolt against him led by Roy E. Disney, who died last year.
For a brief time, though, Disney was a model for the two sides of show business — artists and executives — learning how to make do with one another.
"Change is a very, very tough thing," Schneider said. "I didn't draw, therefore I was suspect, because I could not hold a pencil. What's so admirable about all these artists is they came around. We learned how to grow together and respect each other. Not always agree with each other, but at least respect each other."