Don Hahn | 82 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | NR / PG
From 1984 to 1994, a perfect storm of people and circumstances changed the face of animation forever.
So declares the title card at the start of this documentary, which covers how in just a few years Disney went from nearly shutting down its animation division to a period of immense critical acclaim and box office success, including the first animated movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
On the surface, it’s not a secret story. A significant part of the film is made up of contemporary news and documentary footage that clearly shows this was being covered at the time, and you can see more of the same just by looking into box office numbers and critical assessment. It’s also, to an extent, ‘race memory’ — we ‘all’ know of the Disney classics from earlier years, how this tailed off through the likes of The Black Cauldron, and then the renewed burst of creativity that began with The Little Mermaid and flowed through the likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, until (more or less) the end of the ’90s (before it all went wrong again, but that’s another story).
However, Waking Sleeping Beauty is told from the inside: director Don Hahn started out as an assistant director at Disney animation in the ’80s, graduating to producer by the time of Beauty and the Beast. With him he brings behind-the-scenes home movies and access to a stunning array of interviewees. Almost everyone who was anyone at Disney during that time is interviewed, either through archive footage or new audio commentary. It was a tough time, and while Hahn’s portrait is probably not quite warts-and-all, it comes damn close; for example, we get to see some of the caricatures the animators drew in disgust at their new boss, Jeffrey Katzenberg.
As best I can tell, Waking Sleeping Beauty is only available in the UK through certain streaming services (I watched it on Now TV, which it has now departed; I believe it may have been on Netflix, but again isn’t right now), which is a shame. The US DVD is reportedly packed with nearly an hour-and-a-half of additional interviews and the like, which makes it an enticing prospect.
As Disney’s ‘animated classics’ continue to be successful (with Wreck-It Ralph and Christmas-just-passed’s Frozen the most recent entries) and the focus of their business, from merchandise sales to attractions at their ever-popular theme parks, it’s easy to forget that the animation legacy nearly died — several times. Waking Sleeping Beauty does an excellent job of showing us how close they sailed to disaster, and how the dedication and creativity of individuals who believed in that legacy stopped the ship from sinking.