Extended Thoughts on ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’
Waking Sleeping Beauty
Directed and narrated by Don Hahn
Written by Patrick Pacheco
I have a really great memory when it comes to completely unimportant information. I remember seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit in theaters in 1988. I remember the day I found out I couldn’t go to see Jurassic Park in theaters–I was too young and just discovered that the movie would not be rated PG. I remember the first R-rated movie I saw in theaters, Air Force One. While my memory works well for other useless trivia, you can detect a pattern revolving around movies. And yet, while I was like a lot of other people my age and saw plenty of family films when I was a kid, I know that I remembered names of people I didn’t need to remember.
How many people know who Glen Keane is? Probably not many, outside of his family, friends, co-workers, and those of us who are admirers of Disney animation from the 1980s onward. Does Don Hahn’s name ring a bell? Probably not. But if you read the credits to movies, as I’ve always done, you know him as one of the producers of The Lion King and the producer of Beauty and the Beast. Hell, I still remember the epitaph memorializing Frank Wells’ death back in 1994 in front of The Lion King. Because I know these names, and because I’m hosting a Disney movie podcast, watching Waking Sleeping Beauty, Hahn’s 2009 documentary focusing on the tumultuous time from 1984 to 1994, from Disney Animation’s nadir to its most triumphant moment, isn’t a breathtaking revelation. But that’s not exactly a bad thing.
The worst thing, sometimes, that a movie can be is not long enough. Such is the case with Waking Sleeping Beauty. The movie is, in some ways, a bit of a curio. If you’re familiar with Disney animation and its history, then you probably have heard of this movie and may have even seen it. If you aren’t that familiar with Disney animation or its history outside of knowing the classics and seeing them, you may be hearing about this movie for the first time. But let’s be honest: if you see this movie, you know a lot of the major points Hahn covers. As head-shakingly confusing as it may be, you may know that there was once a time when Disney favored Pocahontas over The Lion King. But why is that the case, exactly? Even if it was as simple as some people thinking a tragic romance works better than a coming-of-age story, there could’ve been more description and discussion about the point outside of the one anecdote we get.
The other problem is that watching Disney Animation triumph once again, pushing past failures like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, is pretty gratifying. However, it becomes even more bittersweet and powerful when you put it in context.
While Hahn does mention The Black Cauldron, mostly in terms of the mood of the department when Jeffrey Katzenberg came to shake things up, he doesn’t really acknowledge how much of a failure the film was perceived to be on creative and commercial levels. His offhanded mention of Don Bluth going on an exodus from Disney, bringing other animators along to his new company, is also frustrating. What effect, what impact did Bluth have on the company while he was there and after he left? Finally, what of Toy Story and the Pixar onslaught that presented itself as the end of the so-called Disney renaissance? Hahn chooses, for some reason, to mostly restrict himself to the time from 1984 to 1994, but the context goes much deeper.
This is not to say that Waking Sleeping Beauty isn’t full of exciting filmmaking or fresh takes on older insights. An interesting choice that Hahn makes is to not have any new footage in his documentary. While there are clearly new interviews with people like Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, and many others, we only hear their voices. All that we see onscreen is home movies from animator Randy Cartwright, marketing materials, interviews, sketches, clips, and recording sessions. There are a few moments of stock footage, either of the Disney Animation building or of standard settings like hospital rooms, but they’re not too frequent. By not relying on the talking-head documentary format, Waking Sleeping Beauty moves at a fast clip, never really taking any time to slow down unnecessarily. Of course, I still think that the movie could’ve benefited from being 2 hours, not 90 minutes. I can imagine that Hahn could’ve unearthed more footage to expand the film’s running time, but what we have here isn’t a draggy documentary by any means.
The chief takeaway I have from Waking Sleeping Beauty is that hundreds of people come together to make great cinematic art, not just one. Now, sure, I already knew that, but this is an interesting affirmation of that thought. Walt Disney didn’t direct a single movie. But people probably think he did, because it’s his name all over the movies. You go to Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He is just as associated with the movies, from before and after his death, as anyone else is. But his involvement waned as the years passed by. The men and women who came together to create The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, among others, did so under the guise of Walt Disney Pictures, but they did it to create something tangible, to prove that they could bring back the glory of animation to the Mouse House. What we should take away from this sterling film is that the people who made these movies partly did it to prove to themselves that they were worth the effort.
– Josh Spiegel