'Waking Sleeping Beauty' is a Captivating History of Disney's Comeback

Disney chronicles its own return to prominence courtesy of 'Beauty and the Beast' producer Don Hahn.

WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY Jeffrey Katzenberg prepares to wake the sleeping princess (as drawn by Kirk Wise) in the documentary WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY directed by Don Hahn, produced by Peter Schneider and Don Hahn.©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

This review was originally posted on Cinematical as part of the Doc Talk column on March 24, 2010, and has been dug up from the internet’s archives. 

There will likely never be a more enjoyable documentary about Disney animators than Frank and Ollie, Theodore Thomas‘ 1995 film about two very close members of the famed Nine Old Men. As far as informative chronicles go, however, the new film Waking Sleeping Beauty is at least a fascinating continuation of the studio’s history and is every bit as captivating as its more recent predecessor and concurring account, The Pixar Story. Whether you’re one of those hardcore Disneyphiles or merely a passive or nostalgic fan of the brand like myself, it’s an engrossing and entertaining journey back to a significant moment in the company’s past.

Waking Sleeping Beauty interestingly enough begins exactly as The Pixar Story does, with a home movie shot by animator Randy Cartwright as he tours the animation building in 1980 (introduction to a young, pouty Tim Burton gets an easy laugh). But while the earlier film quickly leaves the Disney lot with the firing of John Lasseter and the formation of Pixar, Waking Sleeping Beauty tells us what happened to the struggling department left behind. Specifically, we’re given a peek at the Mouse House between 1984 and 1994, the decade of the Disney Animation renaissance (which arguably ended when Pixar released its first feature, Toy Story, through Disney in 1995, thereby re-converging these parallel film histories).

You’re probably at least a little familiar with the story: following box office bombs like The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company, the studio was saved by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (with another flop, The Rescuers Down Under, in between). And also the decision to finally embrace home video. Waking Sleeping Beauty wants to focus on both sorts of salvagers, the creative and the business, and it all flows together pretty well. The film has a few narrative layers, which most prominently include the invaluable involvement of lyricist Howard Ashman (climaxing tragically with his death from AIDS in 1991) and the power struggles among execs Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney, and Frank Wells (climaxing with the last’s death from a helicopter crash in 1994 and Katzenberg’s subsequent departure to co-found DreamWorks SKG).

Considering that, like Frank and Ollie and The Pixar Story, this is a Disney production, there isn’t too much mudslinging, even though none of those execs are still with the company. Depending on your level of favor for balanced documentary, this may suit you just fine. Still, there is a surprising amount of dirt included. Neither the Walt Disney Company nor the execs (all of whom — save for Wells, obviously — were interviewed for and shown early cuts of the film) are depicted with sparkling images. And, despite logical expectations, Katzenberg might even come away with the most sympathetic portrayal of the three survivors (Roy E. Disney, who passed away in December, lived through most of the making of the doc).

The most negative light actually seems to be shone on former Walt Disney Studios president Peter Schneider, who just so happened to produce Waking Sleeping Beauty with the film’s director, Don Hahn. Hahn is most famous for producing Beauty and the Beast, for which he was nominated for his first Oscar, and he’s still employed by the studio, where he’s currently working on Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie feature remake.

The fact that Schneider could have fun with his own image on screen is part of the tradition of the studio, of course. Frank and Ollie shared stories of shenanigans that historically went on in the animation department, much of which was publicly shared and approved by Walt Disney himself, because he believed goofing around with caricature and pranks exercises the creative part of the brain. And there’s plenty of that same playfulness and clowning in the era concentrated on here. Particularly if you get most of the in-house references, Waking Sleeping Beauty is as consistently funny as it is illuminating.

The most interesting thing the film does in terms of technique is to avoid talking heads. As noted, there are new interviews with former execs as well with the artists, animators, and anyone else who had something to share to the oral history of that decade. But only the audio from these interviews is included, allowing for much more archive footage. In fact, there is apparently no visual footage in the film shot after 1994. The way Waking Sleeping Beauty identifies each narrating voice, then, is by way of a little speech balloon icon at the bottom of the screen. Like the TV station logos that pop up all the time during your favorite show, these balloons can either be distracting or barely noticed contingent on how interesting the visual information is at the time.

I love the concept at least because, with focus on the visuals, Waking Sleeping Beauty is not one of those documentaries you can just put on and listen to while you’re doing something else. There’s a lot to see in the film, which is of course how a film should be. Even the nonfiction kind. Not that onscreen interviews have to be as unstimulating as they are in most docs. Some of the most delightful moments in Frank and Ollie, for instance, are with the interviews and (then) newly shot footage.

Waking Sleeping Beauty arrives at another interesting and potentially equivalent time for Disney feature animation. Outside of the Pixar releases, the studio has had many disappointments at the box office, including The Princess and the Frog. The recent news about title changes (Rapunzel to Tangled) recalls a past issue with the renaming of Basil of Baker Street to The Great Mouse Detective, which provides some bits of comic relief in the documentary. And there always seem to be plenty of executive shakeups these days. Yet even on the positive side, Disney did just have its first animated feature nominated for Best Picture since Beauty and the Beast (Pixar’s Up). All these correlations and repeated history only have me hopeful that we get more documentaries like Waking Sleeping Beauty from Disney in the future.”

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.