Arguably one of the greatest periods in the history of feature film animation has got to be what is referred to as the "Disney Renaissance," which took place in the late '80s through the '90s and in some ways can still be felt today. Everyone knows the films, "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty And The Beast," and "The Lion King," some of the most popular, critically acclaimed and most financially successful animated films of all time. But it wasn't always like that and as the film chronicles Disney Animation was in real danger of self-imploding and probably would have if not for the talent of many gifted artists and the vision of three men, Roy Disney, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Like all good documentaries the film dramatizes the events and does its best to not choose sides one way or the other. What it is successful in doing is giving the audience a loving and extremely educational view of the inner workings of one of the most successful corporations in history.
What is truly amazing about Waking Sleeping Beauty is the rare, first hand footage that they were able to use for the film. The movie is almost entirely made of home video footage taken by the animators at the time with their "brand new" video recorders and it is priceless. That along with file footage, photos and archived sketches make up the rest of the film and rather than interviews we hear the voices of the subjects over this original footage. In fact, when someone speaks a voice bubble pops up indicating the subject's name like in an old comic strip. The interviews are in-depth, retrospective and fascinating. The amount of knowledge that one can learn about how Hollywood works from this film is off the charts and better than any film class can offer. Seeing a young Time Burton playing Volley Ball is practically worth the price of admission alone.
The film is directed by Don Hahn and narrated by him as well. Hahn knows the story he is tell well as he was there as a young animator himself eventually going on to produce "The Lion King" among other Disney classics. The stage is set as we are made award of the great Disney legacy and its decline of strong animated product through the late '60s and much of the '70s. Now in the early '80s animator Don Bluth who was heading up the division leaves to create his own company and takes much of the animation team with him creating a dived at Disney. Left at the studio is a group of old time animators and former Cal Arts students, lost and confused about the future of the company. Concerned about the fragility of the company and the possibilities of a hostile takeover CEO Roy Disney (nephew of Walt) steps down and as chairman of the board hires Michael Eisner and Frank Wells to run the studio. Eisner in turn hires Paramount's Jeffrey Katzenberg to be in charge if reviving the studios animation department. At first this was not an easy task as much of the department was resistant to Katzenberg, who himself didn't really adjust well at first either.
The film follows as the department and the executive begin to work together and also watches as Eisner rises to be the face of the corporation through the '90s. We see the department learn from their mistakes of films like "The Black Cauldron" and "The Great Mouse Detective," and they begin to have some success thanks to Robert Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," but it is not till they begin production on "The Little Mermaid" do things start to go their way. Success on that film would eventually lead them to the Oscars with "Beauty And The Beast" and to box office records with "The Lion King" but it would also lead to problems between the men running the company after Frank Wells, the glue holding the company together died tragically in an accident. Desperate for Wells job Katzenberg grows inpatient waiting for Eisner's approval and begins to cause problems within the company. Eisner now criticized by some for creating a monster by giving Katzenberg so much room over the years is dealing with his own growing animosity with a marginalized Roy Disney he feels that he isn't getting the credit he deserves. What follows, is the ups and downs of success and the story of how one of the great institutions in American cinema survived the last century and shows no signs of slowing down.
What the movie does so beautifully is it gives the audience the "fly on the wall" feeling and makes you feel like you were there. The footage is so intimate and absolutely extraordinary, it truly is the star of the film. What's also cool is that many of the talented animators drew cartoons illustrating what was happening at the company at the time and the filmmakers were able to dig up a lot of those drawings to help tell the story of the film. What is evident with this film is the love and reverence that these people have for the company, their legacy and the art of animation in general. What you get with the footage is an opportunity to see what it must have been like to be a part of that moment in time and how exceptionally lucky all those people felt to be a part of that. The inner fighting between the executives of the company is fascinating for any film buff yet the film also works for the average fan of Disney animation and lets admit it, who doesn't love a good Disney film? In the end, Waking Sleeping Beauty chronicles an amazing time in the history of a company and the history of film but it also shines the spotlight on a great American comeback story about a little mouse (and the corporation that he represents) who refused to give up when the chips were down and just wanted to make great movies.