The bar is set and the Documentary Oscar race begins with the debut of WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY. Not environmentally or politically messaged, WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY takes a rare, honest, and very personal, even cathartic, behind-the-scenes look into a pivotal time in the animation world of the Mouse House (a.k.a. Disney). Not just a trip down memory lane, but a trip into the world that gave us the likes of Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Don Bluth and dozens of other artisans and magicians, WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY is a love story which, in classic Disney fashion, has heroes and villains, dreamers and bean counters, and tells the story of a ten year time span from 1984 to 1994 when the once King of the Jungle in animation went from starvation and almost closing its animation doors to rising from the ashes like a Phoenix, to once again reign king at the box office. Get ready to laugh, get ready to cry, get ready to learn, get ready to relive some of the greatest memories of your movie-going life and get ready to leave the theatre brimming with joy on seeing WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY.
For my money, Don Hahn is a genius. As a producer, he has an incredible eye and vision, able to see the forest for the trees. But beyond that, Don Hahn is a man with a heart and an appreciation for a good story. And nothing makes for a good story like a behind-the-scenes story. And co-producer Peter Schneider, has the heart of a lion and the soul and spirit of a dreamer. Together, they are a formidable force. Both insiders to the history of the Mouse House, Hahn began his career with a summer job as an AD for Wolfgang Reitherman, but was quickly “seduced by the animation process; a process that would lead him to animate classics like “Pete’s Dragon” before donning a producer’s hat and bringing us in 1991 the very first film nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture - “Beauty and the Beast” - which also means Hahn was the first producer ever nominated for an Oscar for an animated feature. In 1985 Peter Schneider was elevated to President of Feature Animation for Walt Disney Studios and together with Hahn, was one of the forces behind gems like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin” and the penultimate, “The Lion King.” But while an animation resurgence was taking place in a very public forum, turmoil, growth, rebuilding, in-fighting and sadness was taking place behind the scenes. Over the years, they lived it all - the good, the bad and the maleficently ugly.
After 10 years of pondering an idea of a documentary about the Disney animation machine and specifically, the decade that turned the animation industry and Disney upside down and into the megawatt money maker it became, over a cup of coffee and a trip down memory lane, Schneider and Hahn formulated the idea of WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY - a blend of never before seen home movies taken by Randy Cartwright and John Lasseter (yes, THE John Lasseter), cartoon caricatures, interviews with among others, Michael Eisner, Roy Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg, unseen footage of the studio in its 1980's/90's hey day and the prize animators like Tim Burton, Lasseter and Don Bluth, whose love and passion have never before been so openly acknowledged, and enough classic Disney film clips to have you singing “Supercalifragilisticexpalidocious” from the opening frame.
Calling on then Disney Chairman, Dick Cook, who supported this film from start to finish and giving Hahn and Schneider free reign, and the talents of journalist Patrick Pacheco to present an objective and entertaining script and story, WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY is not only a love letter to the unsung Disney animators but an eye-opener to even the closest insiders.
Narrated by Hahn , we see the ascension of Michael Eisner, the introduction into Disney of Jeffrey Katzenberg who was determined to “wake Sleeping Beauty”, the family patriarch Roy Disney fighting to preserve and celebrate the legacy of his Uncle Walt, and the emotional peacekeeping of Frank Wells. Watching what can often be described as a “fiasco” played out with commentary is beyond interesting from a Hollywood historical aspect. The inside stories of creativity amazing. The candor of the interviews and commentary refreshing. Vintage home movies of the animation team and others are absolutely fantastic, funny and entertaining, but bittersweet when viewed with the reality that was facing each of these magicians. Archival footage and little gems of black and white illustrations of well known characters in the infancy of creation and seeing up close and personal the men creating each with uncompromising love and passion fills the heart, their unbridled enthusiasm contagious. Also a reminder to audiences of today, people seem to forget that many of today's animation geniuses began at Disney...and they forget that time - and money - does heal all wounds, particularly given that so many of the big name animators and directors today began at Disney, left Disney and have now returned home to Disney.
What really captures your heart, however, are the montage of scenes from these priceless animated films of the era . You will have goosebumps from the joyous memories the clips invoke. The most poignant and emotional moments of the film, however, are reserved for two men - Howard Ashman and Roy Disney, both of whom are no longer with us. Many may know the name of Howard Ashman, but with WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, it is evident that he is one of the primary reasons that Disney animation became what it is today. According to Schneider, as in the tradition of Walt Disney himself, “Howard lived the character. When he wrote a song, he created the character. He envisioned these characters. He created these characters. The songs came first.” Just think “Be Our Guest” in “Beauty and the Beast” or “Under the Sea” from “The Little Mermaid.” The animators took over where the words and music ended.
Balancing the heartfelt love and emotion that permeates the film is the light-hearted humor captured through animated caricatures making it the epitome of fun.
As we all know, Roy Disney passed away before the release of WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, but not before it was finished. According to both Schneider and Hahn, Disney not only saw the completed film, but cherished it, watching it numerous times in his final days. According to Hahn, at Disney’s memorial service, his caretaker told Hahn that to Roy Disney, WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY “ was a scrapbook to him.”
Given the somewhat public airing of Dick Cook’s departure from Disney and his unwavering support of WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, many may wonder how Disney CEO Bob Iger views this film. According to Hahn, Iger “was surprisingly supportive.” Known as a company who relishes their history and one that also doesn’t air internal messes, Schneider is very pleased that “[Iger] didn’t push back. That Bob was supportive. He is a great team player. He didn’t say ‘take that out, take that out. You can’t do that’ And even when people said to him, ‘you can’t do this Bob” he said ‘No. That’s our history. We did it.”
Make this your own Disney scrapbook. From the public personas of the individuals involved, and particularly the Disney brand, to the humanity unfolding behind the curtain that often served as the catalyst for the masterpieces we ultimately saw on screen, this glimpse of reality behind the fantasy is enlightening and educational, going far to bridge a gap; something that many animation fans and film historians will not only appreciate, but as Peter Schneider says, “fill you with joy.” Wake up this weekend and be the guest of Don Hahn, Peter Schneider and Disney at WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY.
Directed by Don Hahn. Written by Patrick Pacheco.