Waking Sleeping Beauty positions itself as a behind-the-scenes tell-all exposing 30 years of shenanigans in the Disney Corporation’s animation department. In its opening moments—over The Lion King–era footage—the film’s director and narrator, Don Hahn, intones ominously: “To an outsider, it looked like a perfect world. But backstage, the tension had reached a peak. Even though it was the moment of our greatest success, the wheels were coming off the car.” Which is all very, very titillating, until you notice that the movie is being distributed by Walt Disney Studios. That realization lends a self-serving odor to the documentary’s arc, which is, essentially “Then all the old animators got old, then The Black Cauldron was a flop, then nobody cared about animation anymore, then we had to move to a shittier building (in Glendale!), then Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had a fight, and then we made The Lion King and it was the BEST MOVIE EVER! GO DISNEY!”
But even if Waking Sleeping Beauty feels more like a rah-rah in-house product—like a hyperdetailed DVD extra—than an unfettered testimonial, it offers a few genuinely fascinating and admirably candid moments. The film doesn’t shy away from the awkward shifting animosities between Eisner, Katzenberg, and Roy Disney. Peter Schneider (president of Disney Animation from 1985 to 1999), speaking about Oliver & Company’s two directors, says, “I fired Rick Rich, who was belligerent to me, and kept George Scribner, who sucked up to me.” Snap! And archival footage (animators goofing off, Eisner eulogizing Disney president Frank Wells after his helicopter crash, Jerry Orbach recording in the studio for Beauty and the Beast) is interspersed with decades’ worth of caricatures drawn by the staff to mock their crazy bosses in a charming kind of underground resistance.
Waking Sleeping Beauty was clearly a cathartic project for its creators, but the level of anecdotal detail (“Then we went out for margaritas!”) comes off as self-indulgent at first and eventually just dull. And it stops just short of the moment when a whole other bunch of nerds—named Pixar—came along and rendered Disney Animation’s struggle quaintly dated. The real star of the film, though, is the late Howard Ashman, who oozes genius through the screen and seems to engineer The Little Mermaid’s success out of whole cloth. Wake me up when they make an Ashman documentary.