Friday, February 4, 2011

Review: Waking Sleeping Beauty

Waking Sleeping Beauty is a documentary about the behind-the-scenes events taking place around Disney animated features during the late 80s and early 90s (released on DVD late last year). This is a time any Disney fan recognizes as an important point in the company's history: when Disney animation suddenly rebounded from a string of relatively mediocre offerings to produce big hits earning critical acclaim, most notably The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

Directed by Don Hahn, who was a producer for Disney during this period, Waking Sleeping Beauty is surprisingly frank in its portrayal of the company and the individuals working within its walls for a documentary released by Disney itself. There's even a point in the movie when Roy Disney, Jr. bemoans the fact that his uncle Walt often took too much credit for his movies' success to the detriment of the animators working for him. From a company that sometimes seem to want to elevate Uncle Walt to sainthood, this is a pretty shocking admission to hear.

But Walt and his long shadow are only occasionally mentioned here, the focus is more modern contributors to the company's legacy. Early on, there's a tour of the Disney animation studios casually conducted by animator Randy Cartwright with his newly-purchased home-movie camera. Inside, we see men who would, in the years to come, become Hollywood giants - Tim Burton, Glen Keane, Joe Ranft, and (behind Cartwright's camera) John Lasseter. Along the way, we see walls covered with classic Disney artwork. One animator flips through some old animation from Peter Pan and complains that the work they're doing isn't as good - that they're not allowed to be as good. The question goes unasked, but is obvious, for a company that built its fortune on animated features and with such a wealth of talent and ambition still at its disposal, why in the world were the movies so bland?


Michael Eisner, Roy Disney Jr., Frank Wells.

And then a series of events begin to occur - Frank Wells, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Michael Eisner are brought in and hungry for money, the animators are kicked out of the animation building that Walt built for them long ago and the insult makes them even more eager to prove themselves, and Howard Ashman and Alan Menken have a Broadway hit with "Little Shop of Horrors" that attracts Disney's attention. Would they like to work with the company? Ashman jumps at the chance and has a particular request: he wants to work on animated features.

From there, the snowball begins rolling and growing as it goes. The songwriters are assigned to The Little Mermaid, their work inspires Keane to take on animating the title character, and so on. Suddenly Disney is making animated features worthy of the company's legacy again, and the success only continues to grow for the next several years.


Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collect Best Song Oscars for The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea".

And then it doesn't. Howard Ashman dies before Beauty and the Beast is even complete. Frank Wells dies in a helicopter crash. Katzenberg and Eisner have a clash of egos resulting in Katzenberg's resignation. And then it's all over.

Waking Sleeping Beauty tells this story primarily using archival footage and interviews, along with narration provided by Hahn and resists the urge to impose to clean a narrative on the story. Waking Sleeping Beauty could easily have become the story of Howard Ashman or Frank Wells or probably any one of several other individuals and how their rise and fall (or death) steered the company into and out of this renaissance period. But this isn't a fairytale, it's a story of real-life people creating fairytales, and real life rarely provides as simple a plot as our fictions.

Hahn and his fellow filmmakers draw no conclusions about what made Disney animation great during this time period nor why that greatness faded. It simply presents the facts and allows us to see the mix of talent, timing, and opportunity that fell together in a fortuitous way. It damns no one for the how things fell apart either, avoiding the easy, simplistic task of making Eisner or Katzenberg out to be villains.


Jeffrey Katzenberg inspects animation storyboards.

It's a little frustrating to watch at times. We're used to stories like this giving us reasons and drawing conclusions, or at least steering us more strongly toward our own. Waking Sleeping Beauty eschews such narrative elements, though, and simply provides a look into a real-life time, just the way it was. It's a very unDisneylike thing to do, and all the more fascinating for it.

Waking Sleeping Beauty is must-watch for fans of Disney animation, especially fans of the movies made during this time period. I imagine it wouldn't play quite as well to those not already interested in the material (unlike some documentaries like, say, Spellbound, which is still entertaining and interesting to someone whose never paid much attention to the world of spelling bees).

If you get your hands on the DVD, don't skip the extras. There's some great material in the deleted scenes and side-stories. My favorite is a lecture being given by Howard Ashman (only a few seconds of which appears in the actual documentary) to the Disney animators about the history and use of music in movies. It's a great look at how the lyricist thought, and his ideas are expressed in a succinct and entertaining fashion.

I give Waking Sleeping Beauty 7 out of 10 mice:




If you care to purchase Waking Sleeping Beauty:

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