A film review by Craig J. Koban January 4, 2011
WALKING SLEEPING BEAUTY
2010, PG, 88 mins.
2010, PG, 88 mins.
A documentary directed and narrated by Don Hahn
kind of impossible to consider a point when Disney Animation Studios was
not an unparalleled force to be reckoned with in the film industry.
They are, after all, the chief architects of the most seminal
animated films of the last quarter of a century.
With so many cherished and critically acclaimed classics under
their belts, it’s difficult to even reflect on a period when there was
not a strong outpouring of popular innovation from the global dominating
truth, it was not that long ago at all.
SLEEPING BEAUTY is a continually enthralling new documentary that
chronicles how the current titan of movie animation was nearly reduced to
also an unlikely story of how a once mighty force in the art form that
ushered in a Golden Age of animation was almost forced to closed their
studios down, during which they found ways to persevere and return to the
glory that Walt Disney envisioned for his company from its onset.
By the mid-1980’s it looked very much like Disney animated films
were not going to make it into the 90’s, a prospect that, in pure
hindsight, seems incredulous to ponder, especially considering how
film’s like THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and THE LION KING
forged a new Renaissance for animated films that can still be felt to this
film is both thoughtfully considered and executed as well as offering up
both surprising and shocking revelations about how Disney was run as a
company during the 80’s and the mammoth battle of egos that occurred
between studio heads and the animators that clashed over artistic innovation and financial
imperatives. WAKING SLEEPING
BEAUTY is definitely not made from someone on the outside: It was
directed by Don Hahn (who serves as its narrator and was the producer of BEAUTY
AND THE BEAST, THE LION KING, and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) and he
co-produced it with a former Disney executive named Peter Schneider
(President of Feature Animation in 1985, head of Disney Studios in
1999-2001), who also appears as a narrator throughout the film.
takes a unique approach to the material: Instead of employing the usual
and banal “talking heads” concept that permeates so many docs these
days, he opts for using no in-camera interviews and relies
completely on vintage interviews, press junket footage, behind-the-scenes
images of the Disney films being made, as well as some personal home
videos of the animation studio workers that frequently shirked their
responsibilities…more or less to keep their wits intact with the
gargantuan tasks on hand. The
film is incredibly level handed: everyone from the studio chiefs to the animators themselves are covered and
their outspokenness at times gives the
documentary its compelling edge. It
is the battle between the purity of the artistic imperatives of the
animators versus the office politics and economic drives of the studio
brass that provides much of the tension in Hahn’s film: it’s amazing,
as a result, that anything ever got
accomplished within this company.
1980’s were a dark and dreary period for the studio.
They were coming off a time when the company seem more poised with
making “harmless” and mostly forgettable animated efforts to appease
kids, not to mention that through the '60’s and '70’s the studio
was trying their hand in the arena of live action films.
Realizing that something needed to be
done to return
Disney back to the famed days of old, the company worked on a new animated feature in
1985’s THE BLACK CAULDRON, which cost a then-unfathomable $45 million to produce.
The resulting film was lush and gorgeous to look at, but it
nonetheless failed to strike a cord with audiences: perhaps the ultimate
kick-to-the-groin indignity that Disney suffered was that THE BLACK
CAULDRON was beat at
the box office by…ahem….THE CARE BEARS MOVIE.
It is at this critical breaking point when Disney animated films were almost
dead for good.
came the initial spark of rebirth.
E. Disney – Walt’s nephew and single largest stock holder in the
company at the time, who passed on in
2009 – decided that a radical changeup was required to get Disney
animated films back to the type of pioneering era when SNOW WHITE AND THE
SEVEN DWARFS astounding audiences.
The studio needed a new revolution to occur…or face death.
Disney brought in three men to fix and shake things up: Michael
Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
This move by Disney would prove to save the company, but ironically
created a behind-the-scenes office room firestorm of heated rivalries
based on professional egos gone amok.
tensions between Eisner, Katzenberg, and Disney could have been the
subject of a whole documentary on its own: the infighting and slanderous
mud-slinging that WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY deals is perhaps the film’s most
compulsively intriguing angle.
Both Disney and Eisner thought that Katzenberg was using his own
image to sell their product and was gaining too much attention drawn
towards himself, whereas Katzenberg believed that his actions were
necessary to get Disney back into the public consciousness again.
The only man that served as a referee of sorts is Frank Wells, who
acted as a peacekeeping intermediary between everyone.
When he tragically died in a helicopter crash in 1994, the
relationships between all of the upper brass died as well.
before Wells' demise, Disney did reinvent itself as the company that is
known today for making cutting edge product.
Modest efforts like THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE and OLIVER AND
COMPANY were a decent step in the right direction, but the absolute
turning point came with the release of 1989’s THE LITTLE MERMAID, whose
box office and critical successes re-launched Disney back into the upper
echelon of animated film respectability and profitability.
Then came BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – nominated, you may recall, for
Best Picture – then ALADDIN and then the massive box office juggernaut
that was THE
Alongside these successes were Disney's incalculably lucrative forays into releasing
classics on VHS home video, which begot a revolutionary boom.
This, in turn, led into further forays into computer animation, which
spawned TOY STORY in 1995.
The rest is history.
From the bitter mid-80’s defeats, Disney experienced a a new
Golden Age that, at one nightmarish point, seemed improbable.
of the film’s backstage insights are captivating:
There is a very early home video shot by pre-Pixar mogul John
Lasseter that shows a very young (and creepily introverted) Tim Burton
working at an art table.
There are some funny bits, like how the animators one day decided
to re-enact APOCALYPSE NOW in
their hallways and offices.
Then there are scenes showing the artistic creativity, like how the
HIV-afflicted Howard Ashman was one of the unmitigated geniuses behind
making the songs of THE LITTLE MERMAID really soar and emotionally
One touching moment comes when Katzenberg holds a meeting with the
animators where they all revealed how their family lives have taken a back
seat to anxiety, headache inducing stress, and carpal tunnel from all
their time at the drawing boards.
Katzenberg reveals how these stories reduced him to tears during the
no mistake, though, Katzenberg and company were chiefly motivated by
I think that Katzenberg, Disney and Eisner come off as both equally good
and bad in the film, although the scale tipped towards Disney in a few
scandalous moments, especially in a really dismaying instance at Wells'
funeral where he half-sarcastically is frustrated that Eisner did not give
him a more celebratory introduction, which seemed crudely petty considering
The hostile fragility of the relationship between these three men
arguably crumbled at a point when Eisner revealed to animators that they
were to receive a new studio headquarters.
Katzenberg was in attendance and knew nothing about it ahead of
time; he left Disney after the release of THE LION KING.
If there is a weakness to WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY then it would be that it ends with a bit of an unsatisfying thud: at 88 minutes the film covers considerable ground and it glosses over some details while leaving the post-Katzenberg resignation-era of Disney largely untouched. I would have also appreciated more on the actual technical craft of the animators themselves and a bit less footage of their freewheeling and oftentimes insolent ways of starving off working condition fretfulness. Yet, Hahn’s documentary nevertheless champions these men and women that crafted many of these masterful entertainments that saved the studio. One of the real ironies of WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY is that the high pinnacle of success that the studio found themselves in during the late-80’s early '90’s did not come without sustained infighting from studio chiefs and the ever-inflamed egos of the creators themselves, whom all battled to seek credit where they felt it was deserved. In the end, though, these battles – however inconsequential and egocentrically minded – rescued Disney Animation Studios. Hard to believe, but true.