The Walt Disney Animation department was in a bad place around 1984. Movies like The Black Cauldron and The Fox and The Hound were underperforming critically and financially. The live action department was thriving and animation was in jeopardy. Waking Sleeping Beauty is a documentary that exposes the cast of characters that took that animation to a new level with some of the most successful films of all-time in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The story is almost as magical as the films that are documented.
Drawn That Way:
Waking Sleeping Beauty
By Daniel Pellegrino
March 31, 2010
This past week I had the opportunity to see Waking Sleeping Beauty on the Disney lot in Burbank, California. This was the very location where many of the Disney films documented were created. As I walked into the building, I passed the Animation building and the iconic concrete seven dwarfs that line the building. Before the screening, director Don Hahn introduced the film. As he introduced his labor of love, the curtains parted on the large screen and the film started, sans previews. From the first frame, I was hooked. I felt the magic in the same way that I did in 1994 during the opening "Circle of Life" sequence of The Lion King. Hahn produced The Lion King and classics like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Beauty and the Beast. He knows storytelling.
There are plenty of things that separate Waking Sleeping Beauty from other documentaries. First of all, the footage is all from the archives. Nothing new was filmed for the documentary. Bits of the story that weren't accompanied by footage from the time were shown in caricature form. Hahn informed the audience that animators often take office politics to the drawing board, resulting in caricatured portraits of studio heads getting upset or animators being bullied. Watching the film, I figured that most of these shots were created for the documentary. Hahn informed us that the drawings were gathered from people who survived that decade of animation.
While there is no new footage to be found in Waking Sleeping Beauty, there are various audio interviews that were done with the main players featured in the film. Specifically, candid interviews from Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner and the late Roy Disney are featured. Disney passed away in December 2009, and his interview for this film was one of the last things he did professionally. Don Hahn told audiences after the film that he wanted to use audio only so that he could get honesty out of the people being interviewed. Without cameras in the room, he felt he could get more out of them. He did. I don't want to spoil any of the dramatics, but you will certainly be surprised at how much material he got out of people that are portrayed as the villains in the film.
There are certainly people that are vilified by the documentary, but there are also heroes like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Ashman's story in particular is truly heartbreaking and inspiring. After seeing the film, be sure and look up Ashman's unfinished song work from Aladdin. Ashman had been working on Aladdin right before he died of AIDS. His death came before the film was completely overhauled, leaving a lot of his most personal work on the cutting room floor. "Proud of Your Boy" is a particularly moving song that was recorded for the Aladdin Platinum Edition DVD and has clear parallels to Ashman's personal life.
I don't want to give too much more of the film away. There are plenty of laughs, some coming at the expense of 1980s fashion. You will also get glimpses of a young Tim Burton and John Lasseter. You will see Jodi Benson recording the legendary "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid. You will be inspired. You will tear up. You will see how The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Lion King changed the face of animation forever. It's a movie that is made for the film nerds, but also a movie that will touch anyone who has enjoyed any of the aforementioned films. Michael Eisner says at one point during the film that he wishes he could freeze his life in the early 1990s. He says he likes his job, his kids are at an age he likes and he is happy. This moment was especially moving to me. Everyone has a time in their lives that they are happy, that they wish they could slow down time. In animation, this time was 1984-1994. I hope that Disney has another Renaissance in their hand-drawn animation department. Until then, relive the glory days and check out Waking Sleeping Beauty.