This "Sleeping Beauty" Isn’t Just Another Princess
Disney is practically synonymous with children’s animation, but there was a time when Disney’s animation department wasn’t an unstoppable juggernaut. These days we can expect popular voice actors, top-notch animation, and award-winning music in a Disney cartoon, but just like any company, Disney has experienced ups and downs. Waking Sleeping Beauty, which chronicles the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios from 1984 to 1994, covers a key time during which the studio recovered from a down period and went on to capture the hearts of children and adults the world over.
Directed and narrated by Don Hahn and produced by Peter Schneider, Waking Sleeping Beauty is a very personal movie, and features the filmmakers’ own firsthand accounts. It is also a very honest documentary, so that interview subjects speak happily and proudly of their accomplishments but also express fear, sadness, and anger. Although the studio witnessed a renaissance, it was also a time of conflict, between old animators and new ones, and between the old staff and the new executives. Interview subjects also make it clear that they only succeeded by taking risks and that they, like any other company, experienced many setbacks as they went along. The fact that the people interviewed have gone through such a wide range of emotions makes it all the more interesting to go through the experience with them. There are laugh out loud moments and real tear-jerking ones as well.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is the unique format in which it is presented. Though it features personal recollections from over a dozen people, it never shows them on screen talking to the camera. Instead, Roy Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, and many others speak over images from that era: commercials, home movies, clips of the animation process, voice actors running their lines, and even caricatures of Disney employees. It’s fascinating to hear so many different perspectives because so many people react in so many different ways to the same events.
While watching this documentary, I gained a new appreciation for Disney, and the animation process in particular. It is easy to look back on the success of the likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King and think that Disney had an easy time amassing audiences and making money, but they did many risky things back then and didn’t know whether or not they’d work. Some projects ended up being severely retooled, and the bringing in musician Howard Ashman and turning The Little Mermaid into a musical, for instance, was a radical idea that might not have paid off. It’s a long process, and there’s always genuine emotion invested into creating a film. We get to see what it is like to go through that process.