Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Disney Docs: Part 2

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Release Date: 2009

Studio: Stone Circle Pictures
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director: Don Hahn
Run time: 86 minutes
Seen on: Netflix
Recommended: Highly, especially interesting special features on the DVD

This doc was also distributed by an arm of the Disney corporation. It chronicles the Disney Feature Animation Department when it was moved off the main lot after disappointing movies in the early 1980s. The movie does not use new interviews. Rather, it relys on new audio only interviews, vintage interviews, press-kit footage, in-progress and finished animation, and personal films. The personal films taken (often against company policy) are often the most telling footage. Shortly after the Animation Department was moved, the animators were convinced their days were numbered. They chose to spend their time in a full re-creation of the film Apocalypse Now. This "end of days" feeling was evident through the change of location and management. Fortunately, Roy E. Disney was the champion of the department and saved it from destruction.

It shows the effect and discord of the new corporation team of Michael Eisner, Frank G. Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. This was an interesting element of conflict. Behind all these fluffy and pretty animated movies is corporate politics.

This documentary covers The Fox and the Hound in 1981 to The Lion King in 1994. You learn about the time-consuming and labor intensive process of making an animated film. Animators work on several films at the same time, all at different stages of the process. You see behind-the-scenes meetings, song recordings, and the creative process. You learn about the relationships between animators, lyricists and composers, and the studio heads. The combination of archival films and interviews makes you feel as if you get to know and care for those involved. This makes it all the more heart-wrenching learning of composer Howard Ashman's illness and death before the amazing success of Beauty and the Beast. (He was posthumously awarded Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Beauty and the Beast.")

This was a frank and interesting look at how these best loved films were created. Politics, sweat, blood, and ink created these masterpieces. You get a look at the private elements which produced these very public films.

Disney Docs

So this past weekend, I watched the latest in what I call "Disney Documentaries." They are docs about the people who produced the world's best loved movies. The topics range from music, artists, the (almost) lost art of hand-drawn animation, and Disney artists abroad during WWII. There have been several produced by Disney itself. This gives an easy ability to show clips, original artwork, and music. However, the movies do seem a little santized. There is no real criticism, outside of shifting loyalties to different projects.

Frank and Ollie
Release Date: 1995
Production Company: Buena Vista Pictures
Director: Theodore Thomas
Run time: 89 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD
Recommended: Highly, especially if you a fan of the Disney movies
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 88%

Frank and Ollie was the latest "Disney Doc" I saw. It tells the story of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two animators at Disney. The two college friends started at Disney shortly before the release of Snow White. It begins with the two veteran animators still living next door to one another after years of working together. The documentary switches effectively between their common histories, clips of their work in movies, and their re-enacting of important scenes. In this documentary, one learns about how these men were great animators because they were great actors. They figured out an animal could move and react to give it life and personality. Little things, like the placement of their hands or reaction to another character can bring a flat character to life. My favorite example of this is adding character traits of their young children to animate a petulant Prince John in Robin Hood.

The doc also shows them in their leisure time. We meet each of their wives and dogs. We learn how their carpooling allowed them an extra hour a day to confer and fine-tune their projects. Ollie Johnston had a model railroad large enough to ride through the countryside. Frank Thomas was a pianist who played in the band "Firehouse Five Plus Two," a Dixieland band of Disney animators popular in Hollywood in the 1950s. Unfortunately, their last contribution to Disney films was voice cameos in The Incredibles.

I recommend this documentary for those who grew up on the Disney films. It was an interesting and entertaining look into the work of Disney animators.