Given the Walt Disney Company’s many decades of ruthlessly (and successfully) managing its image, branding itself as a literally magical place serving up the best in wholesome entertainment, it seems ridiculous to expect candor from any branch of the company at this late date. And yet Disney is distributing Waking Sleeping Beauty, a surprisingly intimate behind-the-scenes documentary look at the near death and joyous revivification of its animation studio from the Black Cauldron years to Little Mermaid and the boom that followed. Waking Sleeping Beauty Director Don Hahn (a producer on Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King, among many other projects) was on hand throughout the entire period, and through home movies, interviews, finished and raw Disney footage, in-house video clips, and the usual documentary devices, he tells the story in such a lively, humorous fashion that it may well even have disarmed the Disney PR machine.
In its early going, the documentary is full of familiar names and faces, from old-school Disney vets to up-and-comers like John Lasseter (cameraman on those home movies shot in the animation department) and Tim Burton (glimpsed looking ashy-eyed and gothy at his animation station), but it isn’t the story of the people so much as the studio that lost its way artistically and financially in the mid-’80s, and didn’t find its way back until the ’90s, at which point it became the site of a power struggle between Roy Disney, Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. The second half of the film deals more with the three of them—often in their own words, in what again amount to astonishingly candid interviews—and how their battles affected the company’s output.
While these political struggles played out in public and in the trade papers, Hahn dishes out enough fresh dirt to keep it riveting, while respecting the opinions of all present: In his eyes, it’s as though they’re all authentically fervent idealists, but supporting radically different ideals. And the archival material he finds to support his story is often hilarious and revealing, particularly the caricatures and cartoons the Disney house animators created to blow off steam when their bosses angered them during the darkest days. Waking Sleeping Beauty isn’t flawless—its story tends to wander, chasing the most interesting or accessible events at Disney at any given time rather than sticking to a narrative. It leaves a number of unanswered questions, and the sense that it could have been comfortably twice as long. But what’s there is an unusual peek inside the Mouse House, one delivered by a director who seems to love the studio without letting that cloud his judgement.