VOD film review: Waking Sleeping Beauty
Ivan Radford | On 19, Aug 2020
Director: Don Hahn
Cast: Roy E Disney, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Randy Cartwright, Howard Ashman
Watch Waking Sleeping Beauty online in the UK: Disney+
“The fact is that the last couple of animated movies made were not particularly good.” That was Jeffrey Katzenberg speaking in the wake of The Black Cauldron, at a time when Disney was nearing rock bottom. It’s hard to imagine a time when the House of Mouse was beaten at the box office by the Care Bears, but Waking Sleeping Beauty takes us right through the dark years of Walt’s empire, just as it was clawing its way to a major renaissance.
Key to “waking up Sleeping Beauty”, as Katzenberg was quoted as saying Disney needed to do, was a change-up of the people around her. Roy E Disney (Walt’s nephew) brought in Michael Eisner, who in turn brought in Katzenberg. But it was less a reshuffle and more political chaos, as the various bosses of different Disney divisions all failed to get along. By the time Peter Schneider came along to usher in an era of computer animation, it’s a marvel any films were getting made at all – and yet there Disney was, churning out its target of one film a year.
It’s a perfect storm of people, ideas and circumstances, and the blustering winds of change somehow prove just stormy enough to blow things in the right direction. With The Little Mermaid, Disney found a second wind, and it led to a golden age of animated movies, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. It was in this creative push-and-pull that some defining moves were made, including the release of classic films on home video for the first time to The Rescuers Down Under’s commitment to CG visuals, even when the computers and software hadn’t been tested beforehand.
If all of this sounds like the kind of thing usually kept behind closed doors, you’re not wrong, and Waking Sleeping Beauty’s remarkable achievement is exposing the discord and disarray at the heart of Disney. Director Don Hahn, who was a veteran Disney producer, primarily provides the voiceover commentary himself, but he and his team do a fantastic job of sourcing archive footage and editing it into a 90-minute narrative; from home videos filmed by none other than John Lasseter (watch out for Tim Burton in one scene) to old interviews that unexpectedly weren’t locked away by the corporation, it’s an expert piece of historical compilation.
The result is gripping and entertaining, but also eye-opening, joining the excellent Into the Unknown in providing a surprisingly candid snapshot of life inside Disney. There are endless moments that play out like the juiciest workplace gossip – Eisner announcing a new animation building without telling Katzenberg – and also the knowledge in hindsight that the people on screen would go on to create DreamWorks, Pixar and more. Behind-the-scenes docs don’t get much franker than this.
Waking Sleeping Beauty is available on Disney+, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription.