SXSW Film: Waking Sleeping Beauty

I think it’s safe to say that I am the ‘Disney Dork’ here at Lost in Reviews. For better or worse between my Disney theme park fandom to my love of most of the animated output, any time Disney ‘something’ comes out I always seem to get the frist crack at the assignment. Thus when I first started hearing about the buzz behind Waking Sleeping Beauty after it’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last year I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.

Flash forward a few months and the documentary was announced as part of the SXSW lineup; immediately making my shortlist as a must see. Waking Sleeping Beauty is an examination of Disney Animation at the brink of fading completely into history. The documentary opens around the production phase of The Black Cauldron in 1984. At the time, it was being deemed too dark for release internally and it’s budget was quickly spiraling out of control. Coming off more mis-fires than hits the studio could ill afford another box office dud.

This was also a time of transition for Disney as a company. Michael Eisner had recently become CEO, with Frank Wells being named COO of the House of Mouse. Eisner brought Jeffrey Katzenberg in to oversee the motion picture divisions which included the Feature Animation studio. At that time with Cauldron mired in production the studio was disarrayed and in dire need of a turnaround. Katzenberg as any hardcore Dis-fan knows is often credited with turning the studio around and creating a decade of hits.

Waking Sleeping Beauty works well thanks to the way it’s put together. During the introduction to the film, Director Don Hahn stated that during production, the goal when making the documentary was to avoid old men reminiscing and any kind of ‘talking head’ footage. Using all stock, existing footage, and had all the main players participate using voice tracks as the stories behind the films and almost like a commentary to the footage and drawings. This works effectively well avoiding the typical documentary trappings of an interview type setup. I never felt bored or got stuck staring at someone as they drone on and on about what happened. This also seemed to result in the doc’s participants being very candid as well. Nothing much is held back, not the typical candy-coating Disney can sometimes slather on things takes place here.

Waking also excels at proving it is more than just DVD bonus content, in respect to the total gut punch it serves up about half way through it’s run time. While the film contains quite a bit of “inside baseball,” the story behind the making of some of the cherished classics, in particular, Beauty and the Beast carry a heavier emotional heft than there might seem on the surface. Thus when that moment arrived there was nary a dry eye in the theater. It would have been easy for this to be a total fluff piece, however it holds nothing back. It takes a hard look at all the major players, their success, which would also lead to and expose some of their faults.

If one were to argue, there is a bit of a weak point to Waking. For those with interest in the films released during the period it covers, which includes Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin and those in-between, it’s a must see. This is a bit obvious but for Disney fans it’s a must see. All others however, well it’s difficult to say. For those with only a passing interest in those features, Disney or the “Behind the Music” type stories behind Disney animation during the time period it covers, you may not find much interest in the material. I would say however that any fan of film could appreciate the determination of all involved in pursuit of an art form at the brink that was nearly lost and returning a one time category leader to it’s former glory.

The only other thing I fault with it is that it leads up to the 1994 release of The Lion King and kind of abruptly ends there. Admittedly things get pretty murky for the studio at that point. Thus as being a study of a particular time it works so this is a minor gripe and something only completist will take fault with.

Waking Sleeping Beauty is an easy recommend. Coming from a studio that’s usually pretty guarded, it’s a pretty comprehensive behind the scenes look at a contemporary tale of total turn around.

I give Waking Sleeping Beauty 4.5 “I think the Beauty is sleeping again” out of 5

By John Coovert

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