“Waking Sleeping Beauty”, a fascinating documentary about Walt Disney Studios during the years 1984 to 1994, opens with footage of Sir Elton John recording music for a certain 1994 animated film about a family of lions… which was reinvented as one of the hottest tickets on Broadway to this day. It’s hard to fathom that “The Lion King”, the movie, came out 16 years ago. For many of my generation, the Disney movies of that era (“Aladdin”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit“) are the “new” animated classics. Like the “old” Disney classics (“Pinocchio”, “Snow White”, etc…), these movies are smart, fun flicks that both the kiddies and the adults could enjoy… as well as remember. What many may NOT remember, however, is that not too long before their string of hits, Disney’s animation studio was down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole and couldn’t get out. In the mid 80’s, there was a generation gap between the old timers and the younger animators. The studio’s ambitious (and by some viewpoints, misunderstood…) 1985 PG-rated animated film “The Black Cauldron” cost $25 million to make, and was a commercial failure. Some feared that animated movies in general were on the verge of extinction: they were done by hand and were thus expensive to make, and they just weren’t bringing in the money. “Waking Sleeping Beauty” tells the story about how Disney’s animation division went from the creative and financial doldrums to become a genuine juggernaut, starting with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989. It’s a lively story, indeed, with lively players: including Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt; as well as the men brought in to shake things up: Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Modernizing the studio was also part of the plan: It may seem hard to imagine, but Disney was quite resistant to the idea of using computers at first. (In case you’re dying to know, “The Rescuers Down Under” in 1990 was the first digital movie released in Hollywood.) By the time “Beauty and the Beast” was nominated for the Academy Award for “Best Picture” in 1991– the first animated film to have that honor– it was clear that something big was happening. The film lost to “Silence of the Lambs”. In the words of Don Hahn, who produced “Beauty and the Beast”, “We didn’t win that night, but we were invited to the ball.”
“Waking Sleeping Beauty” was directed and produced by Don Hahn, and produced by Peter Schneider— two genuine Disney insiders. Hahn started in his career at Disney by delivering coffee to the animators, and went on to become one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood today. Schneider worked for DIsney for 17 years, serving as President of Animation and Chairman of the Studio at times. Breaking away from the lazy format of so many documentaries, there are no “talking heads” in this movie. This was a deliberate intention of the filmmakers; they did not want the movie to be, as they mirthfully put it at a Q&A, “two old men reminiscing”. The film is made up entirely of rare archival footage from 1984 to 1994, clips from many of the movies they speak about, and many still shots of cartoons and caricatures– many of them absolutely hilarious. These were drawn by the animators to relieve workplace tension through the years. While its often very funny and always interesting, “Waking Sleeping Beauty” has some truly heartfelt moments as well. The filmmakers sadly reminisce about how Howard Ashman, lyricist and Executive Producer of “Beauty and the Beast”, died from AIDS in 1991; Frank Wells tragically died in a helicopter crash in 1994.
Knowing that DIsney is very, very, VERY protective of its characters and its image, I was literally busting inside as “Waking Sleeping Beauty” was playing. I wondered how the creators had such great access to all the rare and not-so-rare footage shown in the movie. As it turns out, The DIsney company cooperated with the making of “Waking Sleeping Beauty”, and are distributing the film as well. Don’t suddenly think, though, that the film is just a Disney love fest. It’s the whole story: the good, the bad, and the ugly (For example, some of the aforementioned players in this story are not always shown in the most flattering light. In addition, the movie doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that profits, not necessarily creativity, was a guiding force in Disney’s decisions.) Are you the kind of guy or gal that wouldn’t hesitate to buy a ticket for “The Princess and the Frog” to see by yourself; or the kind who’d be willing to sit with your niece or nephew for yet another showing of “Toy Story” on TV? Maybe not. But I can say without a doubt that “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is mandatory for anyone who’s seriously into movies of ANY genre, as well as intrigued by the accompanying trends in pop culture and economics that go hand in hand with the entertainment biz..
“Waking Sleeping Beauty” opens on Friday, March 26th. Visit www.Moviefone.com for locations and showtimes.