The main attraction in theaters this weekend is the 3D re-release of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." If you're hoping to introduce a new generation to the animated classic, by all means bring your kids. But if you're just a grown up wishing to revisit a childhood favorite, and you can't get off the cinematic nostalgia train running full speed these days, don't fall for it. Instead, I have another Doc Option for you.
Usually this column focuses on documentaries that aren't too well known or even readily available. But this week's nonfiction alternative is very easily found and due to its subject matter has been relatively popular for a documentary. So you have no excuse to ignore "Waking Sleeping Beauty," a 2009 film about Disney's feature animation output through the 1980s and 1990s, a period that saw a great decline and then huge renaissance thanks to films like "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." It's also the time when Disney saw much of its creative and executive talents head to Pixar, Don Bluth Productions and later DreamWorks.
The doc is directed, produced and narrated by Don Hahn, a Walt Disney staple who also produced "Beauty and the Beast" (and was sole name attached to its Best Picture Oscar nomination). And it features some amusing caricature illustrations by "Beauty and the Beast" co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, among others. Here's a promotional clip featuring Wise introducing a bit of the film and his drawings portraying a meeting he and Trousdale had with lyricist Howard Ashman:
It's a must-see for Disneyfiles and film history buff as it's an engrossing and entertaining chronicle of a very turbulent and then exciting era for the studio and cinema overall. It also works as a perfect companion piece to the more familiar doc "The Pixar Story," which follows a parallel story and even begins with the very same home movie footage from 1980. The films aren't really connected officially except for both being distributed by Buena Vista, but "Waking" is almost like a sequel, or "sidequel" (yes, a real term). And of course their stories come together in 1995 with Disney's release of "Toy Story."
In my review, I wrote that the doc "as consistently funny as it is illuminating" and acknowledge there's a surprising amount of dirt slung for a Disney-produced self-portrait, as well as an expected amount of memorializing (Ashman gets a respectable amount of focus for his tragic death in 1991 from AIDS). The saddest thing about the story, though, might have to do with how really short-lived was Disney's revival of quality non-Pixar animated features was. Actually, Ashman's death might have something to do with that too.
I highly recommend this documentary, and while I can't embed the full film here it is available on DVD from most outlets and is most easily viewed streaming on Amazon. Check out the trailer: