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Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
Waking Sleeping Beauty is a 2010 documentary film directed by Don Hahn and written by Patrick Pacheco.
It's easy to look at the Disney cartoons of the late eighties and early nineties and see a new golden age of animated filmmaking, with a particular hot streak (financial and critical) extending from The Little Mermaid in 1989 through The Lion King in 1994, especially factoring in Disney-funded side projects like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). But animation is a long process, which means, of course, that the seeds of this success had to be planted well before 1989 -- that some of the studio's best-loved films were germinating just as some of their biggest flops (like 1985's The Black Cauldron) were cratering.
The documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty takes a look back at the circumstances leading to that fall and rise of Disney animation, based on what it describes as a "perfect storm" of artists and executives falling together. This is obviously the movie's pitch, but it's a little sketchy on the details of what alchemy, exactly, a ragtag group of Disney employees created with a team of strong-willed executives (Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, and Roy Disney, nephew of Walt) apart from: first it was bad, and then it was good. What comes through most clearly is the spirit of collaboration between those artists - the kind of creativity, maybe not entirely possible to explain, that comes from hitting bottom and huddling together.
Waking Sleeping Beauty is Disney-approved, and several of the filmmakers remain employed by the Big Mouse, but for the most part it doesn't soft-pedal controversies or bad behavior, like some supremely awkward in-fighting at the funeral of Frank Wells, the Disney president who died just before the release of The Lion King. Sometimes the candor is more playful: earlier tensions between the animators and their new, determined bosses make for some of the movie's most enjoyable anecdotes. Animators, it seems, have a tendency to draw caricatures in times of strife, so there is no shortage of quick, amusing sketches of bosses looking goofy or blowing their top.
Access to Disney clips give the filmmakers leeway to put together some wonderful peeks behind the curtain, as when lyricist Howard Ashman's pitch for the "Under the Sea" number in The Little Mermaid is intercut with finished footage. But Director Don Hahn, who produced Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, doesn't depend on his corporate connections, and in fact much of the film feels charmingly homemade, with personal footage of the animators (some shot by eventual Pixar overlord/genius John Lasseter!) and plenty of vintage newscasts for context -- maybe a few too many, considering they look taped from someone's VHS collection. Hahn uses plenty of voiceover narration to fill gaps, but eschews retrospective talking-head footage in favor of staying in the moment.
Any animation junkie will love it, but sometimes the film feels built for (and, perhaps not surprisingly, by) fans of the company moreso than the art form, with a heavy second-half focus on conflicts between an insecure Roy Disney, public face Eisner, and the short-tempered, possibly glory-grabbing Katzenberg, and their place in the Disney legacy.
The executive profiles are probably necessary, come with plenty of little but revealing moments - at one point, Eisner's whispery rumble sounds almost exactly like Jack Donaghy, Alec Baldwin's character on 30 Rock - and manage to position executive shuffles in a vaguely artistic context. But the movie loses track of its ground-level talent: they tease us with a funny shot of a morose-looking Tim Burton, for example, but don't bother mentioning when he left the company (sometime before the big rebirth) or, for that matter, when he was approached to return for Nightmare (sometime after his success in live action). There's a welcome digression on the genius of Howard Ashman and his last moments (he passed away before the release of Aladdin), but only a cursory sense of how the various directors and animators interacted as teams.
As a bit of inside-showbiz history, Waking Sleepy Beauty has insight and knowledge extending far beyond the typical DVD making-of glimpses, and it's thoroughly entertaining. But its boardroom jostling lacks a jolt of currency; there's no reflection on whether the execs or the animators made changes that extended and echoed beyond 1994. There's not room for fifteen more years of history, of course, but a little context couldn't hurt. The film is far from a whitewash, but the Disney folks can't resist a touch of happily ever after.