Waking Sleeping Beauty
Almost any trip to the local Cineplex will show you that one of the most popular types of movie is the animated feature. The art form has been around for about seventy years but in the last decade or so the popularity and refinements in techniques have exploded. One of the most powerful forces behind the success of animation has been and by all accounts will continue to be the Walt Disney Studio. they invented the concept of the feature length animated film back in 1938 with the release of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and today, in partnership with Pixar have managed to get the Academy Awards to include a category for ‘Best Animated Film’. They have all but dominated that category since its inception readily winning it year after year. One fact that many fan may not be aware of is there was a period of time where the future of Disney animation was threaten with annihilation. A recent documentary covers this turbulent time for the House of Mouse and the eventual resurrection to achieve cinematic glory and regain their place in box office history. ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ covers the decade between 1984 and 1994 where Disney Studios completely overhauled their failing animated film division. This film is astonishingly well constructed dealing with a subject that everyone in the audience can find interesting. After all these Disney animated movies have been a significant part of growing up for generations. Not only does each of us have a childhood favorite but the same can be said both both the generation of our children and our parents. So many documentaries cover weighty topics of social importance but this one endeavor to show us the internal struggles that occurred behind the scenes in this iconic family institution. This is not your typical documentary as far as presentation goes but it is both entertaining as well as highly informative making for an interesting look at one of Hollywood’s truly remarkable comeback stories.
This is not a film taken from the vantage point of an outsider looking in or some academic combing through dusty records to ascertain what occurred in this turbulent time in the Disney organization. The director was Don Hahn, a long time creative force behind Disney animated movies. He was not only there to witness the turnaround in this stalwart Disney division nut he was instrumental in the revamping of the image of these films. In fact he has earned a place in cinematic history by becoming the only producer for animated films to earn an academy award nomination for Best Picture; ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Helping to tell this story is a newcomer to this does offer some balance to the intimate involvement Hahn had to what unfolded in this documentary. As with any documentary it is important to determine the intent an editorial position of the film maker. Some documentaries set out to uncover shocking details or reveal salacious, covert facts. This is a person’s account of a very important period in entertainment history in a fair disclosure.
After so many beloved and memorable films in the Disney Animated canon reality seeped into the enchanted kingdom; they were losing their firm grasp on family entertainment. In 1980 the release of ‘The Fox and the Hound’ was considered a financial success but failed to generate much in the way of favorable reviews. By 1985 ‘The Black Cauldron’ not only was ill received by the critics it failed to recoup the $25 million budget falling short by several million. To add to the disgrace the flick was beaten at the box office by ‘The Care Bear Movie’. This was the nadir for Disney animation. The film opens on a livelier note as an archive film clip shows Sir Elton John at the piano preparing to play as a film crew stands at the ready. The words that appear on the screen sum up the focus of this documentary; "From 1984 to 1994 a perfect storm of people and circumstances changed the face of animation forever." With a little touch of irony the song being played is ‘The Circle of Life’; perfect for this story of the rebirth of Animation. Off screen we hear the voice of Don Hahn describing how in the spring of 1994 they were just finishing ‘The Lion King’. This film would go on to acclaim and overflowing coffers with three quarters of a billion dollars; not bad for a group of people only ten years prior were thrown off the Disney lot. Thanks to the openness of CEO, Dick Cook unlimited access was granted a group of people to document what had to be one of the worse times encountered by this organization. This does infuse this film with a definite sense of fairness. Although made by people who were in Disney’s employ with many still working there, there is little in the way of shying away from the foibles and outright mistakes, the people involved are quick to accept their own part of the responsibility in the fall not just credit for the near miraculous rise. This is especially true of Hahn who points out what went wrong under his time but can turn to an almost parental pride when speaking about how his films were at the forefront of the new age of Disney animation.
The format here was brilliant. Instead of the typical string of talking heads looking nostalgically back all of the film shot was done back as things were unfolding. Some of the comments were made on film as a thank you speech for the Lion King opening, preserved due to Hahn’s foresight. There are some off screen voices providing the narrative but for the most part the people and circumstances mentioned in the opening are permitted to speak for themselves. The film succeeds exceptionally well showing the warts and all with a close up look at the real Disney magic; a group of dedicated and immensely talented people who believed in their art form and cared enough to stick with it during its darkest hour.