Waking Sleeping Beauty

By the mid-eighties, Walt Disney’s fabled animation studios had fallen on hard times. The staff was polarized between newcomers hungry to innovate and old-timers who wouldn’t relinquish control. These conditions had produced a series of box office flops and led to pessimistic forecasts. Maybe the best days of animation were over. Maybe the public didn’t care. If you expected the situation to improve, you probably believed in fairy tales.

“Waking Sleeping Beauty” isn’t a fairy tale but rather the true story of how Disney regained its magic with a staggering output of hits – “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and more – over a ten-year period.

Director Don Hahn and producer Peter Schneider bring an insider’s knowledge to this comeback. They were among the young Turks at Disney who produced some of its biggest sensations. Hahn’s documentary offers a fascinating perspective on what took place within the creative ranks as well as among the leadership team of Michael D. Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney (the nephew of Walt). The process wasn’t always pretty. Hahn (who still works for Disney) brings a refreshing candour to describing ego battles, cost overruns and failed experiments that others might prefer to forget. During times of tension, the animators’ favourite form of attack was to draw nasty caricatures of their bosses. Hahn puts several memorable ones on display and marshals a vast array of interviews, home movies, internal memos and unseen footage. Anyone with an appetite for Hollywood gossip will relish this dish.

Animation lovers, in turn, will savour the rich history that gives credit where it’s due to the many writers, artists and composers who created the Disney phenomenon. The documentary even includes key figures who famously left the company, such as Don Bluth, John Lasseter and Tim Burton. At one time, children imagined that Walt Disney’s signature meant a film was the creation of one man. This is a more grown-up portrayal that reveals the collaborative experience in all its complexity.

[Synopsis courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival]