Movie Review: Waking Sleeping Beauty

We all know the Disney animated classics of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Pinocchio”, “Bambi”, “Cinderella” and “Peter Pan” were smash hits when they debuted and have become beloved classics since. The early decades of Disney feature-length animation were very good for the company as a whole. But as the years continued Walt became more invested in live action films, television, building Disneyland and focusing on his Florida Project. The animation studio, while still producing hits, began to take a back seat to other endeavors. The 1970s and a majority of the 1980s are described as a dark period in Walt Disney animation. Some hits were produced but budgets for the films began to soar. The revenue coming in wasn’t enough to justify these grossly inflated budgets.

The animation studio of Disney looked like it was doomed. An incredible turn of events for the department that not only propelled the company forward but also revolutionized the film industry decades earlier. But in the late 1980s on the heels of “The Black Cauldron”, one of Disney’s biggest flops to date, a gathering of people and a sequence of events ushered in what is now called the Disney Renaissance.

That is the story “Waking Sleeping Beauty” tells. This documentary is directed by Don Hahn who was an animator and a producer of such films as “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Lion King” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. He had a front-row seat to the magic of this Disney Renaissance and he was able to include the animators, directors and studio heads that were all part of the action in “Waking Sleeping Beauty”.

The film is great and if you’ve never seen it I highly recommend you check it out here. It tells the backstory of some of the greatest animated films of all time and shows you who the creators of these films were. There are a lot of incredible stories you learn as you watch but, here are four in particular that I find the most fascinating.

The Animation Studio Was Left for Dead

In 1984 Michael Eisner was brought in from Paramount to be CEO and Frank Wells was brought in from Warner Bros. to be President. The two brought with them some big changes. From Paramount Eisner would bring a colleague, Jeffrey Katzenberg, to head up the film division of the company which included the animation department.

At the time of their arrival, the recent animated films had been lackluster at best. “The Black Cauldron” would release in 1985 and with it, trust in the animation department was brought to an all-time low.

On the other hand, the live-action department was booming for Disney. Katzenberg had a host of new celebrity talent that he wanted to keep happy. In order to do that he made sure they each had an office of their own on the Disney Studio lot. Stars like Bette Midler and Robin Williams received spaces in the animation building and the animators (who received the news via a memo) were relocated. Not just to another building but off the lot completely.  

Imagine that. The animators were kicked out of the building that Walt had built. Where he and his team had created hits like Cinderella and Peter Pan. To add insult to injury they were moved from the main studios in Burbank to a dumpy old building in Glendale. As far away from the executives as possible. The department was on its last leg and had no support from upper management.

The Animators Weren’t Ready to Give Up

At this point, many of the animators could’ve easily quit. Just said “enough is enough” but, they decided to keep going. Their passion and their strong desire to ensure that Walt’s animation legacy would continue remained. They were going to make sure the animation department wasn’t going to end on their watch.

Eventually, the hits started to roll in. They kept pushing them out one after another, each and every year. Their hard work and determination ensured that the animation department wasn’t going anywhere and that it was going to be a strong point of the company yet again. They could’ve given up at any point but they forged ahead.

Howard Ashman Was a Genius

Whenever you watch these sorts of documentaries one person always tends to stick out. Like a saving grace or a huge star whose brilliance helps the cause. In “Waking Sleeping Beauty” you learn how Howard Ashman was that genius.

Ashman was a songwriter who with his writing partner, Alan Menken, composed the off-Broadway hit “Little Shop of Horrors”. After the musical’s success, Disney took an interest in both Ashman and Menken. The next film due up was “The Little Mermaid” which they were tasked with writing the music for. As you now know the music they composed for the film is some of the best in Disney’s history. They followed that up with even more hits in “Beauty and the Beast”.

The way the animators, directors and producers speak of Ashman, you know they hold him in the utmost regard. You hear stories about how he would captivate a room when explaining the importance of a song being placed in a film just so. His musical abilities were incredible and much of the success of these films is owed to both him and Menken.

The Relationship Between Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney Was Tense

Right after the release of “The Lion King” tensions between these three reached a peak. The aftermath resulted in Katzenberg leaving the company. Roy E. Disney, who was head of the animation department at the time, believed Katzenberg was taking too much credit for the successes of the animated films. While Eisner, on the other hand, took every step possible to ensure that his protegee, Katzenberg, would never take the throne.

You might have heard of these stories before but the film presents it in several new ways. First Hahn was able to get interviews with Eisner, Katzenberg and Disney for the film. As these interviews took place a decade after the events each player had the opportunity to speak candidly on the topic. This gives some interesting insights.

The film also shows some new clips I had never seen before while getting takes from animators on what the tension of the three top dogs seemed like. These sections paint an incredible picture of how even though everything was performing so well the relationships behind the scenes were in chaos.

Waking Sleeping Beauty,” tells an incredible story, one that is hard to imagine ever occurred. An animation department on the brink of destruction had the best comeback in Hollywood history. Once it reached the top it was put into yet another tailspin with the chaos its executives brought on. The best part of the film is it reminds the viewer that behind every great movie there are incredible talents that get the job done. And while it can seem perfect on the surface, incredible success can breed incredible jealousy.

To top