Waking Sleeping Beauty is a documentary film directed by former Disney insider and movie producer, Don Hahn. Hahn, who produced Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, crafted this documentary using archival footage, behind the scenes filming not previously accessible, and new audio-only interviews, in order to tell the story of Disney Animation Studios from their utter slump in 1984 through the ‘Disney Renaissance’ up to 1994.
When you say ‘Disney films’ the first one to come to mind are likely to be the ones made during Disney’s boom ‘renaissance’ period, starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan: the list of hits goes on. Yet it is easy to forget that before this period, Disney as a movie studio was a broken entity with a growing list of bombs.
The PG rated and darkly themed The Black Cauldron had left the entire department at risk of being shut down, and the departure of Don Hahn himself to set up a rival company (taking many key animators with him) gutted out the pool of people who were still hand animating every scene. With movies being laboriously produced at a rate of one a year, something had to change.
Waking Sleeping Beauty may not feature any newly filmed interviews or new footage, but Hahn’s insider knowledge and wide access to archive footage allows him to skillfully weave the story of how Disney went from broken to awakened. Corporate shifts and big new players made their mark, such as Roy Disney taking charge of the animation department and drafting in movie producer Jeffrey Katzenberg from Paramount Pictures (a former colleague of the now Disney CEO Michael Eisner).
Like The Imagineering Story, corporate shenanigans (and clashes) are good gumbo for the pot, but Hahn also uses the documentary as a means to shine a light on the huge influence of lyricist and composer Howard Ashman who, along with Alan Menken, created the songs that gave the Disney movies of the time such an iconic ‘musical’ feel. His work on Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid (as well as songs used in Aladdin after his untimely death from AIDS-related illness) get a whole 20 minutes segment in the middle of the movie and shines out among the usual men-in-suits affair.
Surprisingly not much focus is given the animators themselves in terms of craft. Instead, they are mostly dealt with as a whole: a group of put upon youths somewhat at odds with the elder hangovers from the original Walt Disney employees. Office politics and clashes with management show the pressures they were under, not least because the entire department was moved off the Disney lot and into a disused unit at an industrial park. We tend to just get a feel for the group collectively, mostly shown through unauthorised handheld camera footage shot by one John Lasseter (who would later rise to considerable fame and power with Pixar). The feeling? Exhaustion, but love of animation.
The narration by Hahn and addition of new voice interviews give context to the footage, although in a rather ugly manner. The interviews are used in voice over with a text message style speech bubble popping up to tell you who is talking. That irritation aside, it is clear that Hahn knows his stuff, having been there in the period leading up to the time frame he covers, even if the documentary never quite digs in that deeply.
There are suggestions of tensions between the key top brass. Roy Disney and Michael Eisner clearly did not get on, and Katzenberg’s push to get the President job (not long after the previous President and much loved Frank Wells was tragically killed in a helicopter accident) ruffled feathers. These are covered, but the lack of in-person interviews means we never really drill down to the detail.
With a company with a history as long and varied in fortune as Disney, a documentary such as Waking Sleeping Beauty is a fascinating watch. The hugely impressive run of hits that Disney enjoyed during the renaissance period wasn’t down to luck but instead due to the concerted efforts of savvy corporate players and blood sweat and tears animators. It took more than a kiss to revive this stately body, but once awakened she (rightly) came up swinging.
Words by Mike Record