A film review by Craig J. Koban January 4, 2011


2010, PG, 88 mins.


A documentary directed and narrated by Don Hahn

It’s 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 company. 

In truth, it was not that long ago at all. 

WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY is a continually enthralling new documentary that chronicles how the current titan of movie animation was nearly reduced to financial.  It’s 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 very day. 

The 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.    

Hahn 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. 

The 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. 

Then came the initial spark of rebirth. 



Roy 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. 

The 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. 

Yet, 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 LION KING.   Alongside these successes were Disney's incalculably lucrative forays into releasing theiry 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. 

Some 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 resonate.  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 meetings. 

Make no mistake, though, Katzenberg and company were chiefly motivated by money.  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 circumstance.   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.

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