Waking Sleeping Beauty Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

The Walt Disney Company is laser-focused on creating and preserving its legacy. As the conglomerate approaches its 100th anniversary in 2023, it’s easy to understand why the company looks back at its own history and wants to ensure that a specific version of that history is what becomes common knowledge. “It all started with a mouse” is the easy go-to quote from Walt Disney, even if that’s not really true. (Mickey Mouse wasn’t the studio’s first hit character, let alone the studio’s first hit animated character.) Of course, the flip side to wanting to create your own legacy is that people might become skeptical that the version of history you’re telling is actually what happened.

That inherent skepticism is one of many reasons that Waking Sleeping Beauty, a Disney-sanctioned and distributed documentary about one of the company’s crown jewels, is so shocking to watch a decade later.

The Pitch

Walt Disney Animation Studios is the linchpin of the company, and always has been. They may own Fox and Marvel and Lucasfilm and Pixar now, but none of those acquisitions and none of the related dominance would exist were it not for the feature films and shorts from the animation unit. Thus, it tracks that Disney as a whole would green-light a documentary about the studio, and specifically a massively important period in that studio’s history. That, in essence, is the pitch for Waking Sleeping Beauty: the 85-minute documentary is all about the period of time between 1984 and 1994 as Disney Animation swung from its nadir to the soaring heights of The Lion King. The film is co-produced, directed, and narrated by Don Hahn, the Academy Award-nominated producer of Beauty and the Beast.

By the late 2000s, the Walt Disney Company had already begun to crystallize its legacy in documentary form. Though they weren’t released on the same wide scale as major animated or live-action releases, documentaries about some of the studio’s most well-known creative figures had become available sporadically. In 1995, the studio released Frank and Ollie, a loving look back at two of the fabled Nine Old Men of Disney Animation, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, longtime collaborators and friends. And just months before the release of Waking Sleeping Beauty, Disney released another documentary about its past, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story.

That documentary may one day be worth its own entry in this column, if only because it, too, is surprisingly unflinching. (At least, for a Disney-released documentary.) The short version is that The Boys tells the story of Richard and Robert Sherman, the composing team of brothers behind the songs of Mary Poppins. The longer version is that the documentary talks fairly frankly about the dysfunctional and fractious relationship between Richard and Robert, one that is arguably not fully repaired by film’s end. (That documentary will be on Disney+ — according to their site, it’ll be around on May 22 of 2020.)

The Movie

Waking Sleeping Beauty is, in its own way, an unexpectedly honest look at the past. If you do enough research on the era fans lovingly have called the Disney Renaissance (or if, say, you want to read a full series of essays on that period, published at this very website in 2019), you’ll know that the early 1980s were very thin ice for Disney Animation. What’s still a little surprising about the experience of watching this movie isn’t so much the facts that Hahn highlights. It’s that the film talks about those hard facts, as Walt Disney himself would have dubbed them.

Waking Sleeping Beauty opens near its self-imposed conclusion, as we watch behind-the-scenes footage of legendary musician Elton John noodling at the piano before launching into a version of “Circle of Life”, the iconic opening number of the 1994 animated film The Lion King. As Hahn notes, though, “the wheels were about to come off” for Disney Animation in cruel and dark fashion. Before we find out why, the story rewinds to the early 1980s, when Disney Animation was potentially on its last legs. Throughout the next 85 minutes, we see how the studio once more became a dominant force in the industry.

Technically, there are talking-head interviews in Waking Sleeping Beauty. (That much is clear if you stick through the end credits, during which Hahn includes a number of extra clips and footage that isn’t used elsewhere, such as a present-day talking-head with Disney animator Eric Goldberg, who dryly asks, “Am I allowed to mention Jeffrey Katzenberg?”) But you don’t see the result of those talking heads in the film itself — you only hear them. The most novel element of Waking Sleeping Beauty is how Hahn and the other filmmakers cobble together the entire narrative from new interview audio, archival footage, and never-before-seen details, like a home-movie-style tour of the Walt Disney Animation Studios building. (That home movie, glimpsed early, is a time capsule in and of itself: one of the animators shown in the home movie is a very young Tim Burton. The cameraman who identifies Burton is none other than John Lasseter, back in the days when he worked at Disney Animation.)

Waking Sleeping Beauty is as much the story of Disney Animation’s return to greatness as it is the story of the three executives who allowed that propulsive journey. Michael Eisner, Katzenberg, and Frank Wells arrived at the Walt Disney Company in 1984, their presence staving off an attempt at a hostile takeover from an outside stockholder. The push and pull between executives and animators are displayed in caricatures, reminiscences, and more. One apocryphal story during the making of The Great Mouse Detective — in which the executives won an argument in renaming the film, inspiring an anonymous animator to write a satirical memo with dumbed-down titles for other classics — made its way to a category on Jeopardy!, shown in the documentary.

The core flaw of Waking Sleeping Beauty is something mentioned above — this movie is just 85 minutes long, including its end credits. Covering a decade’s worth of history in that short a period of time is understandable, sure. Disney hasn’t been in the habit of making Ken Burns-style documentaries about itself in the past. (Why not start now?) But that means that the films released during this period only get so much attention, as do the people involved in their creation. Aside from Eisner and Katzenberg, the late songwriter Howard Ashman becomes an integral figure at the studio and thus an integral figure within the second half of the film. But the emotional gut-punch of his death due to complications from AIDS hits hardest only if you know it’s already coming, not if you’re learning it for the first time.

In an ideal world, just as the Disney+ original documentary The Imagineering Story would have been twice as long at least, so too would something like Waking Sleeping Beauty. (I would love to watch a multi-episode documentary on the making of the films covered in this film, if not the entire Renaissance period.) It would also arguably have been ideal for Waking Sleeping Beauty to explore beyond the midpoint of 1994. The darkness alluded to in the opening moments is another tragic and unexpected death: that of Frank Wells in a plane crash. Wells’ death, it’s heavily implied, allowed a rift to further open between Eisner, Katzenberg, and their original executive sponsor, Roy E. Disney. That rift is presented in one of the more surprisingly acidic moments here. 

At Wells’ funeral, Eisner delivers a brief introductory speech to the attendees before introducing Disney, at a podium on the opposite end of the stage. “That’s it?”, Disney says wryly (in terms of not getting a more puffed-up introduction), before Eisner walks into frame and sarcastically throws out some complimentary adjectives. That kind of implied rancor is something we see less of between Eisner and Katzenberg, though there was plenty offstage, and documented in invaluable books like DisneyWar. But we only get a tease of it here. Especially seeing as Disney himself was largely instrumental in both bringing Eisner to the company, and booting him in the mid-2000s, it would’ve been fascinating to get more detail.

The Legacy

This movie is all about legacy. Waking Sleeping Beauty may present a slightly less-than-happy view of the goings-on at Disney Animation in the 1980s and 1990s, but the result is still the same. The studio that was nearly on death’s door in the mid-1980s was unstoppable in the mid-1990s. And even though the rise of computer animation changed the trajectory of Disney Animation over the last quarter-century, they’ve never had such grim moments as those when Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to edit, on his own, the rough cut of The Black Cauldron he was presented with upon arriving at the company.

Waking Sleeping Beauty is a fine starter for anyone interested in exploring the documentaries on Disney+. Though I wish it was longer — and there’s plenty of reason for it to both cover more ground and spend more time doing so — for anyone averse to dry and staid non-fiction filmmaking, this speedy film works quite well. The other in-house documentaries are varying levels of successful, depending on your mileage. (I prefer The Boys to Frank and Ollie, if only because the former is more willing to acknowledge the awkwardness of being paired with someone in the public eye despite not liking them very much.)

What this movie offers, though, is just a taste of the true history of Disney Animation. Hahn is one of the best people around to tell that story, in full or in brief. It’s not surprising that in the last few years, he’s gone on to direct another documentary tied to this period: it’s called Howard, and it’s all about Howard Ashman. Though it was shown at a few festivals, don’t worry that you missed out. Howard is coming to Disney+ in 2020. It’s just one more way for Disney to keep doing what it did with Waking Sleeping Beauty: burnish its own legacy to a fine mirror shine.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: