Disney Animation: Key Players

A trip through the 80s-90s in the Disney Studios.
April 23, 2010
The documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty had a limited release this month and will be released worldwide sometime in the future. It details the Disney Animation Studios' second rise to power during the 90s known as the Disney Renaissance.

Since the film has not been released worldwide yet, I shall provide my little history lesson on Disney's rise and I shall even add in a couple of things that the film had left out. Despite being Disney, things in the Animation Department weren't doing so great. There were many arguments and out of all this chaos came some of the greatest films ever.

We start out in the 80s, the animation studios was failing, Disney was releasing less-than-perfect films and had almost completely abandoned the musical numbers. The then-CEO of the company was Walt Disney's son-in-law, Ron Miller. As many of you will know from my last article on Roy E. Disney, Ron Miller wasn't exactly the most efficient boss, he was susceptible to many corporate raids. When corporate raider Saul Steinberg threatened to buy out Walt Disney Productions and destroy it, the executives had to greenmail him.

Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law

Many animators worked on a new film called The Black Cauldron, which was released in 1985. Although the film was a critical disaster and considered the worst Disney movie, the animators eventually became some of the greatest artists to have come out of Disney. These animators were mentored by The Nine Old Men, the nine key animators that worked on every Disney film from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves up to The Rescuers. Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg and many more would be key players in designing and animating many unique characters. Despite this, many people then realized that Disney's standards were failing. One of these people was Roy E. Disney, one of the most important people in the revitalization of the company.

Peter Schneider, Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg, three key players of the revitalization of Disney.

Walt Disney's nephew Roy E. Disney stepped in. Along with Stanley Gold, they ousted out Ron Miller and put in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Roy knew Frank in high school and he knew Eisner was a chairman in CalArts. Michael Eisner became CEO and Frank Wells became COO. Many thought Eisner was the fun one and Wells was the strict corporate but their personalities were opposite of that. This was when things started to change.

Michael Eisner and Frank Wells

Roy Disney chose two Disney animators to pitch a new film to Eisner and Wells. These animators were John Musker and Ron Clements (they would later direct The Little Mermaid) and the film they were pitching was The Great Mouse Detective, originally titled Basil of Baker Street, a mouse that lived underneath the apartment of Sherlock Holmes and acted exactly like him. Great animators such as Glen Keane and Andreas Deja worked on the film. It would have been number one at the box office if An American Tail didn't come out. Previously, Don Bluth worked at Disney but he quit along with 11 other animators to start another company, Don Bluth Productions that eventually became Disney's rival in animated features.

The Great Mouse Detective

John Musker and Ron Clements

Roy was still looking for someone who can help revitalize the Animation Studios and Eisner suggested to him Jeffrey Katzenberg, a man working for Paramount Pictures and future creator of Dreamworks Animation. Katzenberg pushed the animators to work day and night to complete their films and it was this determination that turned the studio around. One last film came out before The Little Mermaid came and regained Disney's title as #1 animation studio. Oliver & Company, a contemporary Oliver Twist, was animated by people such as Randy Cartwright, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg. Again, this film would've dominated the box office if Don Bluth didn't step in. His counter-film? The Land Before Time. Oliver & Company was an experimental film, returning to animated musicals, and it was successful enough that the studio heads approved The Little Mermaid.

An older Jeffrey Katzenberg with an unknown friend
When The Little Mermaid was first being pitched, an animator called Glen Keane begged the execs if he could be the head animator for the female protagonist, soon to be known as Ariel. The music for The Little Mermaid was composed by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who had came from musical theater. They became extremely close to the executives and influenced many of them. Eisner and Wells recruited a producer called Peter Schneider, who would become the President of Featured Animation to help out with The Little Mermaid. Schneider was short and had a high-pitched voice and at first, didn't command the respect of the animators but during one meeting, he became extremely irked at their disrespect for him and he erupted. Ever since then, everyone had the utmost respect for him and he became one of the best film executives they've ever known. Schneider and Roy Disney invested all of the company's money on a new piece of technology known as CAPS, that used computers to ink and animate movies. They knew this was a risky thing to do but as Walt Disney often said, "Disney will always experiment and keep moving forward."

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman at the Oscars for The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid was released in 1989 and it was a critical success. Considered one of the greatest Disney movies to have come out, it was met with universal praise. Critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel praised every little detail, from the motion of the peope underwater to all the little bubbles that the animators took the time to animate. Ariel was a different princess, a headstrong, determined princess compared to Snow White, who would wait for her prince instead of doing something about it.

Glen Keane, the creator and head animator of Ariel would also create Aladdin and The Beast.

Beauty and the Beast bested even The Little Mermaid. It became one of the only animated films to be nominated for the Academy Award's Best Picture. Inside the studio, trouble was abrewing. By then, the animators were sick of Katzenberg. Katzenberg held a meeting with all the animators and asked them to tell him the honest truth about his methods of working. Many animators told stories of how their worklife had caused serious health problems for them. One animator said he had to perform surgery twice because of all the drawing. Many animators couldn't even hold a cup of coffee because of the carpal tunnel syndrome. Many animators also talked of their marriages failing and failure to start a family because of Katzenberg's dictatorial-like way of forcing the animators to work. It was reported that Katzenberg shed a tear when he heard everyone's individual stories. Despite this, Beauty and the Beast won many awards, universal acclaim from critics and was praised for its experimental computer graphics during the ballroom scene.

The famous ballroom scene from Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast was Howard Ashman's last film. His song "Beauty and the Beast" sung by Angela Lansbury was praised. Ashman was openly homosexual and as a result, he contracted AIDS. When Beauty and the Beast was released and declared a success, Eisner, Wells, Schneider, Disney, Katzenberg, Menken and many others rushed to his hospital bed telling Ashman that the movie was a success. Ashman had lost his sight and could barely speak but when he heard his friends running into his room and wildly talk about how amazing the film was, he smiled and weakly said, "I told you so." He died soon after.

When Aladdin was being made, the animators were suffering under the hand of Jeffrey Katzenberg. He was pushing them to the limits. Many of them gained carpal tunnel syndrome from drawing so much. While the people of the outside world were looking at Katzenberg as a "golden boy" who revitalized the company, the people working in the studios started to hate him. Caricatures were made but Katzenberg didn't know the animators hated him. When The Little Mermaid was made, Katzenberg wanted to cut out the song "Part of Your World". All the animators protested this, Howard Ashman threatened to quit. Thanks to the animators, it stayed. Despite all of this, 1992's Aladdin was another success. Eisner and Wells decided that a new Disney film was to be released every two years. From Glen Keane's Aladdin to Andreas Deja's Jafar and Eric Goldberg's Genie, animators were now started to become widely known. It is true that the animators were the underdogs of the Disney Animation Studios.

Aladdin, another box office success

A new film called King of the Jungle was being made. Eventually, it was called The Lion King since lions didn't live in the jungle. This proved to be one of Katzenberg's last films for Disney. Although Katzenberg and Eisner didn't show it, there was certain animosity between them. During the storyboard pitching, Katzenberg was very active in participating and many didn't know that he was about to resign.

In 1994, Frank Wells died from a helicopter crash. Lately, he was the mediator between studio execs, always finding a peaceful solution between them.An argument between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg was extremely deadly and many though it was going to tear the studio apart. After Wells' death, Katzenberg wanted the position of COO and President but Eisner refused. Katzenberg resigned and started his own animation studio, Dreamworks Animation, which later produced films like Shrek and How to Train a Dragon. Eisner later claimed that if Katzenberg was patient, the position would've been given to him. The film went on and it would became a greater film than Beauty and the Beast because of its powerful nature and strong messages. Tim Rice, the co-writer of the songs for Aladdin teamed up with Elton John to create some of The Lion King's most famous songs. The rest followed.

One of the most powerful films, The Lion King garnered universal acclaim

This time period was known as the Disney Renaissance, for obvious reasons. These key players certainly helped Disney become one of the greatest corporations in the Western hemisphere, if not the entire world. Thanks to them, many of us grew up experiencing new and amazing Disney films that taught us about life, death, love, faith and wishing upon a star.

I hope many of you will go out and watch Waking Sleeping Beauty, for it's an amazing movie and details the history of the Animation Studios far better than I have. It is directed by Don Hahn, producer for Beauty and the Beast and Lion and it is produced by none other than our very own Peter Schneider. Featuring interviews with many of the executives who've experienced all the things themselves, including the late Roy E. Disney, it is a must-see for all Disney geeks.

The Walt Disney Animation Studios, full of rich history, good and bad
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