One of our “counting down to Disneyland” traditions has always been movie nights. We’ve done different things throughout the years. One year, we decided to theme our movies by lands. Tarzan, Swiss Family Robinson, and Indiana Jones for Adventureland, Star Wars for Tomorrowland, a number of animated movies for Fantasyland…. you get the idea. We’ve even attempted to watch movies in chronological order, starting with Snow White and working up. Many times, the only criteria needed is whether the movie is Disney or at least in a Disney vein. Lately, (and my wife has been thankfully been going along with it) I’ve been in documentary mode.
One thing to know about me and my taste in movies: I’m an escapist. I don’t look for realism in my movies; I look to be entertained. There’s enough real in the world, and I’d rather have two hours of good storytelling than two hours of depressing realism followed by another two hours of deep thought.
With that being said, it’s amazing what good storytelling and entertainment Disney documentaries provide. They are among my favorite movies – not just documentaries. This week, we’ve watched two such docs – “Frank & Ollie” and “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” What great movies to bookend each other.
“Frank and Ollie” chronicles the journey of two lifelong friends who happened to be animators at the Disney studios – Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Walt’s “Nine Old Men.” Aside from being great guys and storytellers, the two were geniuses in the animation field. To watch them describe their work, through drawing and facial expressions, you can’t help but feel in awe of the animation process: the nuances of the characters, the humanizing of non humans – it’s truly amazing. The examples given, from Baloo agonizing over telling Mowgli it’s time to go back to the man village in “The Jungle Book”, to Archimedes the owl laughing hysterically at the idea of man someday mastering flight in “The Sword in the Stone,” really make me want to play closer attention to these little sequences of animation.
Guess it’s true what was said in Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles:”
Of course, the other focus of the movie – the friendship of the two – is truly touching. These two neighbors had different interests, different ways of doing things, but there was a genuine connection between the two. Knowing this movie was made toward the end of their long and amazing lives makes the final (wordless) few minutes incredibly poignant – Frank playing a tune on the piano while Ollie rides his trains (both their lifelong passions outside of animation) – it’s just about perfect. As were their animations.
If you’ve followed my Facebook page, I’ve made it no secret that not only is “Waking Sleeping Beauty” my favorite Disney movie, but it’s at the top of my list of all time favorites. Not bad for a film that wasn’t even made by Disney (only distributed)!
WSB follows the story of Disney animation through the turbulent years of 1984-1994. These were the years that saw “The Black Cauldron” get beat out at the box office by “The Care Bears Movie,” that saw the animators get evicted from their own building, that saw a drastic overhaul of the Walt Disney studios. But this was also the era that brought us “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and so much more. The story is told through the eyes of the animators – their successes and their failures. Ideas that worked and many that didn’t. Masterfully narrated by Don Hahn, and filled with interviews from those that were closest to the situation, including those involved in upper level power struggles (including Michael Eisner, Roy Disney and Jeffery Katzenberg) – this movie is master storytelling at its best.
Besides being informative and many times funny, the movie is a bit of a tear jerker as well. The filmmakers deftly chronicle the late Howard Ashman’s role in the resurgence of animation. Without him, one would question whether The Little Mermaid would have ever stayed afloat. Many of us knew of Howard as the other half of a songwriting team with Alan Menken; very few of us saw his creative process with the animators, the voice actors and the musicians. By the time the segment covering his passing arrives in the film, we really feel as though we’ve lost an amazing influence.
I’ve linked a bonus feature from the DVD on Howard here, but it’s nothing compared to the segment in the movie:
After I posted on Facebook, my friend and reader of the blog, Debi shared this with me:
“Feeling grateful again to my friend Craig, who turned me on to Don Hahn’s documentary, WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY. I bet I can do an RTI enrichment class based on this movie. Just watched the “Part of Your World” recording piece. Fabulous. The piece about losing Howard Ashman is very powerful and kids will lean from and relate to that story in an important way.”
I couldn’t agree more, Debi. This movie means that much to me, too.
This post has gotten rather long winded, but I do feel it has given you, dear readers, an insight to the mind of this DisNerd. And I’ll be going to Disneyland soon, thinking of these stories as I ride rides and see shows that they have influenced – can’t wait to share that with you as well!