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Waking Sleeping Beauty
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by Lybarger

"A "Making of" documentary as entertaining as the cartoons themselves."
4 stars

SCREENED AT TRUE/FALSE 2010: ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ is less of a documentary and more of a goldmine for animation geeks. Actually, if you love or simply have a mild interest in Disney animation, the directorial debut from veteran Disney producer Don Hahn is loaded with jaw-dropping revelations, backstage intrigue and impressive feats of creativity that have gone unseen for decades.

The film charts how the Mouse House almost lost its animation department 30 years ago but gradually regained its dominance in cartooning with a series of breathtaking films like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” While the films themselves are still formidable achievements, Hahn and producer Peter Schneider reveal that the making of such beautiful films got downright ugly.

While a lot of ink has been spilled about how tensions at the company led to the acrimonious departure of studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg and the downsizing of chairman Michael Eisner, “Waking Sleeping Beauty” actually contains fresh information about how both men gradually went from being friends and collaborators to fierce rivals.

Much of the content of this film could only have come from people who were in the room during the making of the film, so Hahn has some fresh dirt. But thankfully, he’s also careful to give his former bosses and coworkers their due, and he presents them as people instead of hyperboles.

So, how inside is the information presented in “Waking Sleeping Beauty?” For example, the home video footage from 1980 that begins the film shows the camera roaming through the studio.

Sounds pretty dull, right?

But perhaps it should be noted that during this and other tours, we discover John Musker and Ron Clements (the team behind “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”) slaving away at their cubes. You can also spot a young, intense-looking animator named Tim Burton looking as if he’d rather be at work. A veritable who’s who of animation appears in the clip, but it’s worth noting that the man running the camera is John Lasseter, who later became the head honcho at Pixar and a Disney executive.

What’s remarkable about the footage included in “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is that none of it was shot after 1994, when “The Lion King” because a high water mark for the studio and Katzenberg left feeling that Eisner had not given him due credit for the studio’s string of hits.

Instead of having the participants recall their memories on-camera, we only hear their voices as footage from the era rolls by. Aesthetically this is shrewd because showing what the animators look like now might have been jarring, and the choicest bits of the film come from discovering sequences and images that were never meant to be seen by the public.

When Peter Schneider, who comes from a theater background, was placed in charge of the animation team, he received a lot of the resentment that new bosses get. But his subordinates were artists and expressed their hostilities through hilariously unflattering cartoons of him and other execs during their off hours. Many of those are thankfully presented in “Waking Sleeping Beauty.”

In addition to being candid about their foibles, the makers of “Waking Sleeping Beauty” are also quick to give credit for what worked about the studio. When “The Rescuers Down Under” failed at the box office, the often fiery Katzenberg didn’t berate his team but quietly and politely suggested they concentrate on their next effort, “Beauty and the Beast.”

Much of the content in “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is familiar, but it’s presented in such a fresh and intimate way that the old stories are moving in ways they have never been before. Collaborators recall how lyricist-producer Howard Ashman, who made invaluable contributions to “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” died of AIDS without having seen either of the latter two films. As presented in the new documentary, it’s impossible to keep a dry eye during Ashman’s story.

While the behind the scenes footage is often quite funny (the animators once let off steam with both margaritas AND a live mariachi band), “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is blunt about the work involved in the films. Animators saw little of their families because they were toiling insanely long hours.

Journalist Patrick Pacheco conducts some wonderfully candid fresh audio interviews with Eisner, Katzenberg and the late Roy E. Disney (Walt’s nephew) that slowly reveal that one or two people really didn’t lead to the studio’s renaissance. Rather, it was a type of chemistry that ended when key members either left or died prematurely.

While the movie includes footage of Richard Rich (“The Swan Princess”) and Don Bluth (“An American Tail”), who left the studio acrimoniously, it might have been instructive to hear what they had to say about their departures. Nonetheless, Hahn and his cohorts have every reason to crow about their past achievements and about making a new film that’s as entertaining as any of the cartoons they’ve created.

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originally posted: 03/26/10 21:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.

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  26-Mar-2010 (PG)
  DVD: 30-Nov-2010


  DVD: 30-Nov-2010

Directed by
  Don Hahn

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