When you think of Disney, you probably place the words drama, tragedy, betrayal, and triumph in the context of their films and associate them with lion kings, little mermaids, and evil sea witches. The name has become synonymous with all that is wholesome and American, and yet the drama behind the scenes has always been every bit as compelling as that on the screen. Waking Sleeping Beauty looks back at the perfect storm of commerce and creativity that occurred between 1984 and 1994 and generated some of the studio’s most successful and beloved films in decades. In many ways, this behind-the-scenes documentary is far more compelling and dramatic than the most perfectly-crafted work of fiction.
Using only archival footage culled from studio documentaries, home video, and the media, Waking Sleeping Beauty is narrated by Disney director Don Hahn and corroborated by other Disney insiders. The story begins in 1984, when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg entered the Disney scene, creating the first significant shake-up in leadership in studio history. As Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy, handed the reins to a new regime, he ushered in an era of profound change. It was a time of extremes, both positive and negative, that could only be labeled as tumultuous, but the end result is a host of films that will be cherished for generations.
After Walt Disney turned his attention to live action films and theme parks, his lauded animation department languished. Though a talented and passionate crew of animators was still employed by the studio, their work took a back seat to more lucrative productions. If it felt as though animation was on the back burner when new management stepped in, it may as well have been taken off the stove when the animators were moved from their building on the Disney lot to a row of portables in a dodgy part of Glendale. Under Katzenberg’s leadership, work became utterly demoralizing for the animation team. They were subjected to brutal criticism, expected to work ridiculous hours in less-than-ideal conditions, forced to attend business meetings at ungodly hours, but somehow this do-or-die environment generated three types of work: hits, misses, and learning experiences.
Under the immense pressure to get it right, meet deadlines, come in under budget, and compete with masterpieces from Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg, Disney’s animation department rose to the challenge. Stinkers like The Black Cauldron would beget The Great Mouse Detective, then Oliver and Company, each getting progressively better until finally The Little Mermaid took audiences (and the Oscars) by storm. With the help of Broadway veterans Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, Disney began to approach animated films like musicals, employing the same devices that made productions like West Side Story and Little Shop Of Horrors so successful. From that point, Disney went on to produce Aladdin, The Lion King, and what many consider to be their coup de grace – Beauty and the Beast. At long last the studio was creating animated films on par with Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and all the other classics in the Disney vault.
This flurry of creative activity and unprecedented success would ultimately meet its end through a series of tragedies, as key players lost their lives, burned out, or moved on. The story arc of Howard Ashman (who would die of AIDS before the completion of Beauty and the Beast) is particularly moving, but is just one ingredient in this perfect storm. Though the subject matter is specific, Waking Sleeping Beauty is a portrait of the creative process, workplace drama, and the human condition all rolled into one riveting film. Who would have guessed that the story behind some of our favorite films rivaled anything written by Shakespeare?
Extras include audio commentary, deleted scenes, studio tours, and a host of featurettes delving even further into the topic of Waking Sleeping Beauty.