Waking Sleeping Beauty is billed as “the true story of how Disney regained its magic with a staggering output of hits” after “the fabled animation studios of Walt Disney had fallen on hard times” in the mid-80s. Don’t get the wrong impression, though — this isn’t a movie about what went wrong or examining what changed in the cartoon content. The closest anyone comes is mentioning how a particular movie lost money. This film is still fundamentally celebratory of the company and its output.
For anyone interested in Disney animation history, though, it’s essential viewing. It’s really the story of the Eisner era at Disney, or more specifically when it comes to animation, the Katzenberg era, and how the new executive team affected cartoon production.
It’s narrated and directed by Don Hahn, producer of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, with a ton of archive footage and photos covering 1980-1994. At the start of that period, animation was running on autopilot as experienced animators retired, replaced by kids from Cal Arts. See big names like Glen Keane, John Lasseter, and Tim Burton as young men at drawing tables, or watch the generations of artists mix at the premiere party for The Fox and the Hound. Find out when and how Don Bluth left to form his own animation company.
The business aspects aren’t neglected. Roy E. Disney’s resignation was a stunner to many, demonstrating how much a shakeup was needed. Michael Eisner was selected to be Chairman and Chief Executive Officer in 1984, accompanied by Frank Wells as President and Chief Operating Officer and Jeffrey Katzenberg as animation head. The kindly old men who used to run the place were replaced with Hollywood executives. Waking Sleeping Beauty follows the many changes of this period and what was produced during that time.
The Black Cauldron was a key touchpoint. Its production was marred by culture clashes between the young kids, who wanted the darker material, and the old guard focusing on story. When it flopped, that was seen as the low point for the animation department. The team was kicked out of the historical Ink and Paint building and put off the lot. The Great Mouse Detective is another point of contention, mainly over its retitling from “Basil of Baker Street”.
Instead of on-camera interviews (talking heads), in addition to mostly archive material (including news reports of the time, which I found fascinating) and interviews from the time period, there are caricatures, art done by the animators, and lots of voiceover. Some of the many changes include revenue streams, when cartoons first came to video, and competition with live-action, where the Disney company’s main attention was focused. Movies discussed include Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Oliver and Company, and of course the marker of the renaissance, The Little Mermaid, including a section covering Howard Ashman and his music work. Pixar first worked with Disney on The Rescuers Down Under, the first digital cartoon, a movie that was undercut by having its marketing budget pulled after the first weekend, before the two companies teamed up on the more successful Beauty and the Beast.
The last section of the film discusses Frank Wells’ death in 1994, which precedes Katzenberg seeking press coverage for The Lion King. His showmanship, which was interpreted as egotism, led to his resignation when he wasn’t promoted into Wells’ position. These final events marked 10 years of that regime and the conclusion of the time period covered here.
Waking Sleeping Beauty covers a significant era with lots of details about several modern classic Disney animated movies in an entertaining, involving way. I very much enjoyed watching it, and I learned a lot.
Surprisingly for a documentary, there are lots of extras on this disc:
- “Why Wake Sleeping Beauty?” (9 minutes) — The filmmakers talk about what they were aiming to do, their approach, and how the movie came to happen.
- Six deleted scenes:
- More information about Aladdin and the deleted song “Proud of Your Boy” (4:40).
- A 12-and-a-half-minute lecture by Howard Ashman about songs in musicals.
- “Losing Howard”, almost five minutes of how people found out he had AIDS and handled working with him on Beauty and the Beast while he was dying.
- Footage (6 1/2 minutes) of recording “Part of Your World”.
- “Research Trips” (4:20) to Australia (for The Rescuers Down Under), France (for Beauty and the Beast, I think), and Africa (The Lion King).
- Katzenberg’s goodbye party (“To Sir With Love”, 1:40).
- The Sailor, the Mountain Climber, the Artist, and the Poet (15:26) — about those departed during this period: respectively, Roy Disney (who’s credited with saving Disney animation), Frank Wells, Joe Ranft (Pixar storyteller), and Howard Ashman.
- Studio Tours filmed by Randy Cartwright from 1980 (5 minutes), 1983 (4:17), and 1990 (4 1/2 minutes) — This archival footage walking around the animation buildings showed up as excerpts in the main movie.
- “A Reunion” (2:14) between Rob Minkoff (Lion King director) and Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast director), who went to junior high together in the late 70s.
- Six minutes discussing “Walt”, the original Disney, and how cyclical change is.
- Audio commentary by director Don Hahn and producer Peter Schneider.