Waking Sleeping Beauty
We all know the Disney Renaissance well. From the late '80s to early '90s, we were blessed with a group of films that rejuvenated and redefined the animated feature: The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. These stories forever bonded those of us who grew up during that time, especially young women who looked up to their wide-eyed but still fiery princesses as our ideals. (I remember gathering with friends in the back of the bus to sing "Part of That World" in unison on our way to school trips.)
Long-time Disney producer Don Hahn's documentary provides a nostalgic trip for my generation, as well as an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the special set of circumstances, or "the perfect storm of people," that led to the creation of these classic films. As hard as it is to believe now, Disney's animated division was in serious trouble in the early '80s, the company relying prominently on its live-action features like Splash for its profits. Disney even went so far as to evict its stable of artists from the animation building, which eventually led to the management turnover that brought in Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who made it his personal mission to "wake up Sleeping Beauty."
In the following years, upper management brought in a slew of new artists, many from the musical theatre world, and put animators to work round the clock on what would become their most successful feature in decades, The Little Mermaid. Collaborators like composer Howard Ashman injected that epic sensibility into Disney's developing tales, but Hahn's treatment of the creative process in his documentary is anything but epic. Hahn takes great joy in poking fun at the clash of personalities behind the scenes, with caricatures of execs and animators alike sprinkled throughout. He makes the tensest of decisions playful, earning laughs even when (or especially when) things turn ugly.
Hahn's approach is fitting for Disney's animators during this era, a group of people who played just as hard as they worked. At one point early in the film, when they're all still fearing for their jobs, Hahn shows them keeping their spirits up by reenacting Apocalypse Now in the office. It's not all fun and games, though; Hahn also gives us an interesting albeit brief look at their difficult working conditions. Huge prices were paid by the artists for such a prolific period, mainly personal, many animators working too many hours to spend time with family and friends.
Waking Sleeping Beauty does a commendable job of exposing the dark underbelly of such an innocent source of joy in my own life. Still, the film's most interesting scenes are the ones that are more creative, like Ashman pitching "Under the Sea" to a room full of animators or he and Alan Menken working out the kinks of "Be Our Guest." But these moments of epiphany are few and far between, at least in Hahn's film, and thus its title is a bit misleading. As I suspect many of Disney's animators felt about this period, I wish it'd been less about ego and more about the creative process.