Waking Sleeping Beauty
Directed by Don Hahn
While most employees complain about their company over happy hour drinks, it is apt the creative team at Disney would make a pleasant documentary, the behind-the-scenes Waking Sleeping Beauty, as an avenue for career catharsis. Focusing on the fiscally and artistically transformative years from 1984-1994, director Don Hahn (a producer for Disney at the time) and producer Peter Schneider (an animation exec) navigate the animation department's rapidly changing halls. At the onset, the animation wing has been marginalized and is in danger of being shut down after a series of disappointments and flat-out critical and financial flops (most notably—or, rather, forgotten—The Black Cauldron); yet, similar to most Disney animated features, Waking Sleeping Beauty's happy ending is apparent from the beginning.
With a strict "no talking heads, no old guys reminiscing" rule, Hahn and Schneider only use footage shot before 1994, leading to a feeling of flipping through a tumultuous family's photo album (replete with fascinating facial hair). The animation team is introduced as an endearing, imaginative bunch of energetic goofballs, reveling in their privilege to create for a living when they're not pulling pranks and throwing margarita parties. The executives, however, are all profit and insincere posture. The animators are, quite blatantly, the unlikely but inevitable heroes so familiar to the Disney brand. They may be depicted as victors but, most refreshingly, Waking Sleeping Beauty does not always follow the simplistic paradigm of heroes and villains. Even though the bigwigs—mostly Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and, to a lesser degree, Roy Disney—pigeonhole themselves with their oversized egos, their voiceover confessionals reveal layers, even if their sole purpose is to manipulate.
Given how inherently problematic the set-up is—Hahn and Schneider both worked at Disney during the years shown—the self-promotion is kept to a minimum, except when exalting their early 90s films (namely Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King). The institution of Disney is not treated as sacrosanct-it is criticized when necessary, and praised when appropriate. The balance does, occasionally, feel a bit off: packed with employees of Disney past and present, it's laid on quite thick. The voiceovers are informative, but sporadically overbearing. Ultimately, the themes boil down to that tale as old as time: art vs. commerce. The successfully delicate construction of Waking Sleeping Beauty is unsurprising, as the filmmakers have spent a good amount of their careers manufacturing magic. The trick is making the sentiment genuine-and, thankfully, Waking Sleeping Beauty is. It's not simply about pitting beauty against the beast, and surfacing the human condition within a cash-cow corporation, but the joy of community and creation.
Opens March 26