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Josh Reviews Waking Sleeping Beauty

August 21st, 2017
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Waking Sleeping Beauty is a 2009 documentary film, masterminded by Don Hahn and Peter Schneider, that tells the story of Disney animation’s return to prominence in the late eighties and early nineties with the huge successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.  This is an extraordinary documentary, created by two men who were right in the thick of Disney animation in those days.  As such, it is an incredible insider’s view of what went down, and it’s a remarkably honest, no-holds-barred telling of the story.  For anyone with any interest in Disney animation, this film is a must-see.

Back in the 1980’s, Disney animation was pretty much dead.  As the documentary opens, Disney’s over-budget production of The Black Cauldron (1985) is released to crickets and loses the studio a ton of money.  The animation department is moved into what is little more than an abandoned warehouse.  Former Disney animator Don Bluth’s new company (at which he employs many other former Disney animators) releases An American Tail in 1986 to great success, out-grossing Disney’s release that year of The Great Mouse Detective.

But gradually a series of events sets in motion important changes in the animation department and Disney over-all.  Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney resigns from the board and eventually steps into the role of chairman of the animation department.  Michael Eisner is hired as Disney chairman and Frank Wells is hired as President.  Mr. Eisner then hires Jeffrey Katzenberg as head of film production, and as such Mr. Katzenberg is directly involved in the production of all new animated features.  The film does not shy away from presenting the controversial moves made by Mr. Eisner and Mr. Katzenberg specifically, two powerful men who did not seem to mind throwing a few elbows.  But the film also highlights all that they did right, and the actions they took to help lift Disney out of the doldrums.

Across the board, Waking Sleeping Beauty is remarkably honest about the struggles and challenges faced by Disney animation during those years.  This isn’t a glossy, everyone was always happy retelling of these events.  (Considering this documentary was released by Disney, this is fairly astounding!)  Some of the film’s most fascinating bits concern the arguments, large and small, that went into the making of these movies, and the many interpersonal squabbles that erupted among these hard-working and talented men and women.

The film spends a lot of time exploring the production of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, two films that were both enormous successes and together represented a huge turning point for Disney animation.  The documentary emphasizes the contributions of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who wrote the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Live Action Beauty and the Beast

April 5th, 2017
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I am not sure what to make of Disney Studios’ apparent desire to remake every single one of their animated films into a live action version. I wasn’t interested in Cinderella, nor did I see 101 Dalmatians.  I did see Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, as I was drawn by the CGI spectacle, and I quite enjoyed it.  When I heard that a live action Beauty and the Beast was in the works, I had some interest because I love the original animated film.  (I remember going to see it when it first came out, on a trip with a high school film class, and being blown away by the film.)  So I was intrigued by the idea of a new version, but also as perplexed as I am any time Hollywood decides to remake a great film.  I can understand remaking bad movies, in an attempt to spin a failed concept or execution into a more successful undertaking, but what is to be gained by remaking an already great movie?

This new version of Beauty and the Beast is an interesting exploration of that question.  On the one hand, I freely admit that this new version is terrific.  I have a lot of great things to say about it, all of which I will get into in just a moment.  But is it better than the original film?  Not in my opinion.  It’s just different.  It’s an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of work, and I had a heck of a lot of fun watching it on a humongous IMAX screen.  But after seeing it, I have been wondering, what was the point?  Why did so many people work so hard for so many years just to remake an already great film?

Perhaps I should say “recreate” rather than “remake,” as this new Beauty and the Beast hews extremely faithfully to the original film.  There are a few tweaks here and there.  They delved a little bit more into the Beast and Belle’s backstories; they changed the character of Belle’s father Maurice a bit; they tweaked Belle’s involvement with the other villagers; they gave the Beast a new song; etc.  But whereas The Jungle Book was a far more complete reinvention of the story, one that took full advantage of what modern CGI can do, this film uses modern CGI not to reinvent the original movie but rather to recreate it as faithfully as they could.  What changes have been made to the original film’s story are entirely superficial.  (I read a LOT in the press, in advance of this film’s release, about the changes made to Belle’s backstory, how she was now more of a fighter for the other … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Sweatbox, the Documentary the Walt Disney Company Doesn’t Want You to See!!

April 6th, 2012
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Remember the Walt Disney Company’s 40th animated feature, released in 2000, called Kingdom of the Sun? It was an epic tale set in the Inca empire about a selfish king who briefly switches places with a poor farmer who happens to look just like him, and an evil magician with a plot to block out the sun.  The film featured the voices of David Spade, Owen Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Carla Gugino, and Harvey Fierstein, as well as six songs written for the film by Sting.

No?  You don’t remember seeing that movie?

That’s because after three years of work, Disney management decided to completely rework the film, throwing out much of the material they had created (along with all six songs recorded by Sting).  The film that was ultimately released to theatres was called The Emperor’s New Groove, and featured the voices of David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Wendie Malick and Patrick Warburton, with two entirely different Sting songs in the film (“Perfect World,” performed by Tom Jones, and “My Funny Friend and Me”, which played over the closing credits).

The long, torturous process by which Kingdom of the Sun became The Emperor’s New Groove was captured in Trudie Styler and John-Paul Davidson’s amazing but long-shelved documentary The Sweatbox. In addition to being a filmmaker, Trudie Styler happens to be Sting’s wife.  When he agreed to be involved with the music for the film, he got the studio to agree to allow his wife to document the process.  She got a lot more than she bargained for.

The first thirty-to-forty minutes of The Sweatbox unfolds as one might expect any in-depth look at the making of an animated film to go.  We spend a lot of time with the film’s lead director, Roger Allers, who was a star at the studio after his work co-directing The Lion King, which had become a huge financial and critical success.  We meet various other key personnel on the Disney animation team — the co-director Mark Dindal, the producers, the lead animators tasked with bringing to life the film’s main characters, and more.  Meanwhile, we follow Sting and his collaborator David Hartley as they work to write and record six songs for the film.

Then, about forty minutes in, we witness the fateful day in which an early story-boarded cut of the film is screened for the heads of Disney Feature Animation, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider.  They hate the film, declare that it is not working, and begin a process of totally scrapping and reinventing huge chunks of the story.  Characters are totally changed (the villager Pacha changes from a teenaged boy who looks just like the king into a heavyset married … [continued]