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“Waking Sleeping Beauty” pays tribute to Roy E. Disney’s creative legacy

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“Waking Sleeping Beauty” pays tribute to Roy E. Disney’s creative legacy

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Nancy and I got the news yesterday afternoon as we were driving down to NYC. We’d stopped to gas up the car in Tolland, CT when Angela called on the cell to say that Roy E. Disney had died.

This was obviously sad news. But -- to be honest -- not exactly unexpected. Ever since word leaked back in June that Walt’s nephew had stomach cancer and was now making the rounds, saying goodbye to friends & family … Well, it was really only a matter of time.

But that said … I think that it speaks volumes about how revered this man was within the industry that – in this age of Perez Hilton & Nikki Finke, when any celebrity-related bad news is immediately splashed around the Web for the whole world to see – that people decided to keep Roy’s secret. If Walt’s nephew really wanted to spend his remaining time on this planet out of the spotlight … Well, then people respected his wishes and were very circumspect about who they shared this information with.

Peter Schneider, Roy Disney and Peter Katzenberg sitting on front steps together in the early 1990's.
(L to R) Peter Schneider, Roy Disney and Jeffery Katzenberg on a story retreat in the early 1990s.
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Anyway … The reason that Nancy and I were heading down to New York City was that we’d been invited to a press screening of “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” Which is Don Hahn & Peter Schneider’s terrific new documentary about the second Golden Age of Disney feature animation.

Peter was actually on hand for last night’s screening. And before this movie rolled, Schneider stepped to the front of the hall and spoke briefly but movingly about Roy E. Disney. In short, Peter talked about how – if it hadn’t been for Roy – there never would have been a second Golden Age. That only Walt’s nephew recognized what was going on at Walt Disney Productions during the late 1970s / early 1980s. That the Company was creatively adrift and that something needed to be done – and fast – to make Disney culturally relevant again.

So Roy (with the help of his good friend & longtime adviser Stanley Gold) set the wheels in motion that eventually removed Ron Miller from power and put a whole new management team in place at the Disney Studios. More to the point, at a time when Michael Eisner & Frank Wells were giving some very serious thought to shutting down Feature Animation, Walt’s nephew stepped in and “Maybe you’d better let me run that. They sort of know me over there.”

Roy E. Disney helping out with the promotion of Fantasia 2000
Roy helping out with the promotion of "Fantasia 2000."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

So when you really get down to it … The reason that Walt Disney Productions didn’t wind up like so many of the other studios from Hollywood’s Golden era (i.e. with their film library sold off to one company, and the land that the studio sat on being sold off to some real estate developer, and the company’s name then being sold off to the highest bidder) was because – at a time when the Mouse Factory was turning out sub-standard product like “Herbie Goes Bananas” – Roy stepped up and said “Disney is better than this. We are capable of so much more.”

And they were. When you look at all those amazing hand-drawn animated features that The Walt Disney Company produced between 1984 and 1994 (“The Great Mouse Detective,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King”) … Roy E. Disney was the catalyst for all of those. He’s the reason that Walt Disney Productions went from being the industry joke that it was back in the 1980s to the multimedia powerhouse that it is today.

Because of his affable nature, his love of yachting and that castle in Ireland, people continually under-estimated Roy E. Disney. They figured that Walt’s nephew was basically a figurehead, the absentee landlord of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Someone that the Studio trotted out whenever they had a new Platinum Edition DVD to sell.

Roy E. Disney introducing the True-Life Adventure Legacy Series
Roy E. Disney introduces the True-Life Adventure Legacy series.
Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

But as Michael Eisner learned in 2004, it was never wise to under-estimate Roy E. Disney. And though he and Stanley’s “Save Disney” campaign wasn’t quite as successful as their 1984 effort (Let’s remember that – in addition to getting rid of Eisner – Disney & Gold wanted to bounce Bob Iger as well as put a brand-new Board of Directors in place), it still paved the way for the creative cultural change that occurred at the Company over the past few years. Not to mention Disney’s acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios in January of 2006.

So if you like The Walt Disney Company of today … To be honest, you owe a debt of thanks to Roy E. Disney. The man who nudged Walt Disney Productions out of its tired old ways of the 1980s and then kept pushing for innovation (EX: Disney working with Pixar to create the CAPS system) as he went along.

Anywho … At last night’s “Waking Sleeping Beauty” screening, Schneider mentioned that this documentary had been dedicated to three men. To be specific:

To the artist, the poet and the mountain climber

Joe Ranft
1960-2005

Howard Ashman
1950-1991

Frank G. Wells
1931-1994

But that – from this point forward – “Waking Sleeping Beauty” would be dedicated to four men. With Roy now officially being recognized for the important part that he played in the revival of Disney Feature Animation.

Speaking of this new documentary … During the post-screening Q & A, Peter mentioned that Roy had been the very first person that Patrick Pacheco interviewed for this film (And – in an eerie co-incidence – Disney’s first interview session for “Waking Sleeping Beauty” had been done two years to the day that Roy died). More importantly, that Roy E. had seen the movie before he had passed away and just loved how honest it was. How it accurately depicted all of the passion, joy, chaos and conflict that went into the creation of all of these much-beloved animation features.

In fact, if you’re looking for a way to pay tribute to Roy E. Disney … Then you really should see “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” Which just does such a beautiful job of explaining & illuminating the huge role that Roy E. played in turning things around at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Roy Edward Disney (1930 - 2009)
Roy Edward Disney (1930 - 2009)

This new documentary will be out on the festival circuit for the next few months and will then be released to theaters in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco in late March. So keep an eye out for “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” okay? So that you’ll then have the opportunity to celebrate the creative legacy of Roy E. Disney.

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