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Waking Sleeping Beauty

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/16/10 00:14:02

"Half the story of Disney's 1990s resurgence."
3 stars (Average)

Watching this movie's opening scenes, with a bunch of animators screwing around, working more or less unsupervised in Disney's old Ink & Paint building, brought together for being college classmates and taking breaks to do skits and home movies, reminds me of my youth. Not because of how I loved Disney movies, or because I was that sort of creative person. This image of Walt Disney Studios circa 1984 reminds me of what working for the dot-coms during the internet bubble could be like, and, well, let's just say that I know how that story ends.

Waking Sleeping Beauty doesn't follow this story all the way to its conclusion, though - it mostly chronicles the years between 1984 and 1994, when Disney feature animation rose from the low of The Black Cauldron to the high of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and how behind-the-scenes changes in corporate leadership saved the division, shook it up, and built it into the Disney of the 1990s. We're (re-)introduced to all the important figures of the time - executives Roy Disney, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells; creative people like Ron Clements, John Musker, Howard Ashman, and many more, including camoes by the likes of Tim Burton, John Lasseeter, and Don Bluth. They tell the story of what working at Disney was like at the time, in their own words and with their own pictures (both caricatures and home movies).

It's a telling demonstration of just how dependent on editing all films, but especially documentaries, can be. Director Don Hahn pieces his movie together from behind-the-scenes footage and other odds and ends, and he does a decent job of matching his narration and interview recordings to it, although he quite often seems guided by what he has, often indulging his own nostalgia for the time. As a result, the movie is sometimes awkwardly constructed - with over a decade having past since the film's endpoint, much rancor has disappeared; even Eisner and Katzenberg seem to talk about their past dealings with regret more than anger. So in chronicling the rise and imminent fall of the group, Hahn seems to have trouble both in saying that Feature Animation needed a shake-up and in presenting the acrimony behind the scenes.

Of course, presenting the chronology of this story presents some unique challenges - it makes sense to present the film in chapters, and the pictures themselves make for reasonable divisions, but production on them overlapped, resulting in a fair amount of back and forth that makes the chronology feel a bit wobblier than it actually is. On the other hand, he and his editors do, ultimately, do an impressive job in framing the film: As the movie wraps back around to the start, footage that initially seemed endearingly awkward is re-presented as contentious, strained politeness.

"Waking Sleeping Beauty" isn't the definitive telling of this story; Hahn is too close to the material and subjects. It's a good starting point, and offers a tantalizing glimpse at how the suits and creative types need each other, even if they sometimes have a hard time admitting it.

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