Waking Sleeping Beauty

In the early-to-mid-1980s, Disney's animation department hit an all-time low. Rising animation star Don Bluth had grown frustrated with what he perceived as creative stagnation at Disney, and left to start his own company (taking a large handful of Disney's most talented animators with him). Bluth's departure delayed the release of The Fox and the Hound, and their next feature - The Black Cauldron - was a critical and commercial flop. The animators were kicked out of the fancy animation building and sent off to work in a depressingly dingy new location. Some wondered if the department would soon be shut down entirely. Little did anyone know that the company was on the brink of a major creative renaissance that would produce some of their most beloved features.

Don Hahn's documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty offers an insightful, entertaining look at this chapter in Disney's history, examining the assorted figures who played key roles in building Disney Animation back up. Even so, the film isn't a puff piece designed to polish the company's legacy, which is surprising given that Hahn produced several of the Disney gems made during this period. The film is often a story of bruised egos, manipulative power plays and corporate interference. Why would Disney agree to distribute such an unflattering portrait? Perhaps because the film also gives us a good look at real movie magic being created. As Hahn notes, the films themselves will live much longer than the behind-the-scenes drama.

Though a host of directors, actors, animators, musicians and other key figures in Disney history are featured throughout the film, the movie largely examines the era through the eyes of the executives who oversaw it: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Roy E. Disney (Walt's son), Frank Wells, Peter Schneider, etc. All of these men played a key role in helping turn the company around, but too many of them wanted the lion's share of the credit. We see both Eisner and Katzenberg making blatant bids to be the corporate “face” of Disney, and a bitter rivalry of sorts begins to emerge as the company grows more successful (when The Lion King was being made, many people working on the film saw the story as a metaphorical portrait of the corporate battle being waged within the company).

Hahn does an admirable job of keeping his own sentiments on the matter in check, striving to deliver an even-handed examination of the era and giving everyone a chance to have their say on the matter (new interviews with Katzenberg, Eisner and others are surprisingly candid). You only catch Hahn tipping his hand when he talks about Don Bluth, whose name is uttered with an unmistakable air of disgust and who is described as, “the man who kicked us when we were down.”

The film's first half details the animation department's rags-to-riches story, while the second half offers some fascinating insight on beloved films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The documentary's most affecting passage spotlights lyricist Howard Ashman, a prickly genius who died of AIDS in 1991. A handful of behind-the-scenes clips reveal a fiercely intelligent man overflowing with good ideas, and multiple participants marvel at his ability to pinpoint precisely what a film needs (Sebastian the Crab was initially supposed to be a crusty British character, but Ashman suggested making him Jamaican). Hearing the early song demos he recorded with composer Alan Menken, you hear the soul of the movies he worked on emerging.

It would have been easy for Hahn to give his documentary a fairy-tale ending (“The films were great and everyone loved them!”), but he doesn't. Instead, the closing scenes spotlight Disney once again falling apart at the seams, as the death of Frank Wells (the company's great uniter) leads to increased tension between Eisner and Katzenberg (the latter would leave the company, while the former would go on to make a series of exceptionally controversial business decisions). He also notes the grievances of overworked employees, who struggled to keep up with the demands being made of them (at one point, Katzenberg was moved to tears when he learned what his employees had been forced to endure). Still, there's a justified trace of warmth amidst the melancholy: whatever happened and whoever is to blame, these people made something beautiful together.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 86 minutes
Release Year: 2009