Castles in the Air
By Michael Koresky

Waking Sleeping Beauty
Dir. Don Hahn, U.S., Stone Circle Pictures

Waking Sleeping Beauty, the new documentary directed by Don Hahn, the producer of the Disney animated blockbusters Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and produced by Peter Schneider, who in addition to a successful career in Broadway, was at different points the Chairman of Disney Studios and its President of Animation, is an odd duck indeed. On the one hand, it’s a pure, unadulterated shot of self-congratulation: a mostly fond look back at the ten years in Disney’s history (1984-1994) that saw the studio pick itself up by its bootstraps and, by sheer force of capitalist will, believably remold itself as the dream factory for quality, epochal animated features, a reputation that had fallen off quite a bit since the late sixties when the studio, and even Walt himself, had largely lost interest in the art form. On the other, it’s a fleet, revealing look at the studio as singular corporate entity, and thus a schizophrenic attempt to honor its toiling craftsmen while also giving due prominence to the executive infighting that made the studio in that era a target for media gossip as much as a candidate for accolades—and as such it’s highly unflattering to most of the subjects and participants. A final narration reminds us that one day “no one will remember the fights—they’ll remember the films and the characters.” Well until that day comes, we have Waking Sleeping Beauty to heartily remind us.

Animation hounds and Disney junkies will have much to salivate over in the film’s first half; this is where we get a trove of archival footage of the school-like corridors and teeming draught desks of the animation department in the early Eighties, much of it taken furtively by a young animator named John Lasseter. With its dozens of affable, rumpled CAL Arts grads (almost exclusively white and male) still trying to keep the house that Walt built alive, those years appear like sun-dappled halcyon days on film (even with a brief glimpse of a genuinely despondent Tim Burton at the drawing board), but this was a time when every new animated feature was going over like a lead balloon. The final two-pronged straw in the mid-Eighties consisted of the expensive flop The Black Cauldron (deemed too “grim” to connect with kids, but probably in reality too weak in its grasp of dark-toned fantasy fiction to intimidate even the youngest viewer) and the better but wanly received The Great Mouse Detective, neither of which even managed to excite the cultural curiosity mustered by the studio’s jazzy but indifferently assembled late period films such as The Aristocats and Jungle Book, let alone a corker like Cinderella or Pinocchio. Former in-house animator Don Bluth had resigned in 1979 to form his own company and took legions of Disney staffers with him, and his more caringly crafted (if admittedly more juvenile and patronizing) works, such as 1986’s An American Tail, were routinely sending Mickey off with his tail between his legs. Dark days for the iconic studio indeed, but, as anyone who had even a passing interest in movies in the 1980s and 1990s knows, redemption was on the horizon, and it wore a clam-shell bra.

However butchered from the Hans Christian Andersen source material, 1989’s The Little Mermaid was, of course, a smash, a revelation even, in the way that it not only reminded children and their parents of the pleasures of classic fairy-tale storytelling but also revivified the cinematically defunct musical genre by giving it a new paint job; the film wisely credits the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman for much of the Disney brand’s rejuvenation—what’s The Little Mermaid without “Under the Sea”? Zemeckis and Spielberg’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (made at Touchstone, a Disney studio subsidiary, then run by upstart Jeffrey Katzenberg) had just one year earlier got audiences again thrilling to ’toons; The Little Mermaid took that good will and ran with it. Then-CEO Michael Eisner, he of the aggressive avuncularity (few of our generation wouldn’t recall his forced, suit-and-tie-choked Walt-wannabe encounters with Donald and Goofy on the ABC Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney), saw red in the water, and the rest is history—a quick succession of era-defining kids’ flicks equally embraced by ticket-buyers and critics (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King), sprinkled with the occasional oddball effectively buried by the studio (The Rescuers Down Under, A Goofy Movie).

Naturally the failures are blips on the radar in Waking Sleeping Beauty, which is first and foremost a tribute to Disney’s reemergence as a cinematic superpower, as well as an implicit celebration of traditional 2D, hand-drawn animation. Not only does the film only mention Pixar in (ironic) passing, it doesn’t contain a single bit of footage shot after 1994—not even a talking head—which saves the filmmakers from trying to explain Pocahontas, Hercules, The Emperor’s New Groove, and the death of traditional animation, but also keeps the film moving at a bright, linear clip. And since other documentaries unquestioningly celebrating the cultural dominance of Disney, such as Frank and Ollie or, say, countless extras on Disney DVDs (some gratifyingly thorough, especially on Lady and the Tramp), hold more traditional appeal by focusing on the Thirties through the Fifties, when it was possible that Uncle Walt might pop his head in the door at any moment, it’s refreshing to get the full story on the company’s fraught recent past.

If only that narrative didn’t often boil down to a somewhat tedious three-way bout between Eisner, eventual studio chairman Katzenberg, and major executive and shareholder Roy Disney (Walt’s recently passed nephew), then perhaps it would be clearer why even the most devoted Disney fanatic should care about Waking Sleeping Beauty. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the documentary’s most gratifying moments focus on the artists (the bad omen in the mid-Eighties when the animators are moved off the studio lot to a “gutted wretch of a building” in Glendale; Ashman pitching the Mermaid music and lyrics to a room of animators) rather than the money men (the nadir of which is some wince-inducing footage of a faux-folksy Roy Disney chiding Eisner for an improper introduction at a memorial tribute to a colleague). Of course, this is the Mouse House we’re talking about, so true artistry will always go gleeful hand in hand with corporate stoogery. In that sense, Waking Sleeping Beauty paints an honest picture indeed.