Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) dir. Don Hahn
By Alan Bacchus
It may seem odd that even though I despise those ‘Little Mermaid-Lion King Era’ Disney pictures of the early 90’s I was still attracted to the story behind the making of these films. The corporate story of Disney from its fall from grace in feature animation to its triumphant rise under Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg is given feature documentary treatment in ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’.
The title refers to a quote from Katzenberg upon being hired by the company, the need to recapture the magic touch of Uncle Walt, who died in 1966, just as the company was moving in the direction away from animation and into theme parks, TV and other ancillary ventures.
The start date is 1984 with the hiring Michael Eisner from Paramount and Frank Wells of Warner Bros to run the company. Along with Roy Disney, the sole mainstay from the Uncle Walt era and Jeffrey Katzenberg who would become the celebrated ‘saviour‘ of the animation, they form the trinity of characters for the film. There’s enough TV coverage for Hahn to use to visualize the hoopla around this event, much of it from a 60 Minutes segment conducted by Diane Sawyer.
We all know the persona of Michael Eisner, not an actor, but a man with a persuasive enough voice to make him the public figurehead of the new Disney. Jeffrey Katzenberg is characterized as a money-maker who is quoted as saying, he doesn’t to win the Academy Award but the Bank of America Award.
Early on we get to see early footage of a young Tim Burton, John Lasseter and other future star filmmakers working as animators under the old regime. Hahn depicts the youthful animation division as a ragtag bunch of kids holding together the legacy of Disney with duck tape and chewing gum. The lowest point for everyone was the overly budgeted failure ‘The Black Cauldron’ and the usurping of the throne by Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth with their new animation collaboration, "An American Tale". But slowly, by the hand of Katzenberg, the hits start rolling in, ‘Oliver & Company’, ‘Little Mermaid’, “Beauty and the Beast’, and ‘Aladdin.’ But by the time their biggest hit, “The Lion King’ rolls around the money making machine starts showing signs of wear and tear behind the curtain. Hahn cleverly demonstrates the ego clashes between Roy Disney, Eisner and Katzenberg by intercutting their own filmed introductions to their movies, a childish competition to be bigger than the other. With Katzenberg increasing his public persona higher than Eisner’s we’re told this is the impetus for the breakup of the once mighty trio. Knowing a second wave of Disney resurgence with the merger with Pixar, post Katzenberg, his departure doesn’t have much gravitas, but it’s the death of the unassuming peacemaker Frank Wells which provides the emotional cap.
Unfortunately, since Eisner is still with the company we don’t get to hear from him outside of the canned interviews, soundbites from news stories and other publicity-policed segments. In fact, none of the non-stock interviews are shown on camera. We only hear their voices, identified by pop-up graphics. This decision was most likely made to avoid any potential stodginess which might result from documentary formalities, but it comes at the expense of being able to see the facial expressions and mannerisms of the film’s central characters. At one point one of the animators tells us the soul of an animated film is in the eyes of its character - a severe bit of ironic failure which Hahn unfortunately fails to see.
And overriding everything is the silent hand of Disney guiding this film. Don Hahn, producer of ‘The Lion King’, and longtime Disney employee narrates the story. His voice is not that compelling and he’s not even much of a storyteller, but his rise from lowly coffee fetcher for the Disney’s cherished animators of old in the 60’s to the producer of the most successful classical animated film ever made certainly gives him the authority. But with this, inevitably, a celebratory back-patting feeling arises. Hurray for us. The film never goes beyond the information it’s meant to convey. The lack of personality from their subjects means the film never rises to the artistic heights and pathos of say, ‘The Kid Who Stayed in the Picture’ or 'An Inconvenient Truth.' And so I couldn't help but think how Davis Guggenheim or Brett Morgen would have served this material.
"Waking Sleeping Beauty" is one of three 'Disney Documentaries' available on DVD from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. The others include "Walt Et Grupo" and "The Boys"