Most of the time getting a long hard look at how the sausage gets made is a recipe for tears. When you admire something, sometimes the bubble is for the best. A candid look might show someone you admire is really a blowhard taking credit for someone else’s work and that something that moved you was a cynical product rather then a genuine work of art. And that’s if you’re lucky.
Waking Sleeping Beauty on the other hand is the rarest of things, a peek inside the sausage factory that makes you admire the finished product more rather then less. A peek inside “The Disney Renaissance” that brought the studio back to prominence from the late eighties to early nineties after a brutal string of duds, Waking Sleeping Beauty may not be perfect, but coming from a company as paranoid about its image as Disney it is remarkably candid.
The documentary splits its concerns equally between the filmmaking and corporate sides of the puzzle, imagine Enron The Smartest Guys In The Room, melded with A Decade Under The Influence. Following in equal part the machinations of the three executives vying for control of company, Roy Disney, Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg and the beleaguered animators below them who were having trouble making decent movies before they were caught in the crossfire of high corporate maneuvering. The ability to juggle the disparate topics with equal command is one of the most impressive (and judging from the reviews I’ve read underrated) aspects of the film. It’s tough enough to make a decent documentary on one topic, let alone two with such opposite poles as the worlds of high powered executives of the go go nineties and scruffy cartoonists and have the whole thing come out as a piece.
Even more remarkable is how even handed the documentary comes out. It’d be expected to see the cuddly Roy canonized by virtue of the possession of the name, and Katzenberg who has been the creative force behind many of the crassest Dreamwork’s animated films and Eisner whose ousting from Disney was greeted with the jubilant air of a Guillotining in revolutionary France, vilified. Instead, Roy gives what’s easily the ugliest moment in the film, while Eisner and Katzenberg, though both given critical looks also get full credit for the smart decisions they made.
But all the corporate brinkmanship would come to very little if what came out of it wasn’t remarkable. And for animation fans, Waking Sleeping Beauty is simply a treasure trove. Disney is well renowned for having one of the most meticulous archives in Hollywood, but judging by the archival material presented in the doc they’re positively neurotic about it. It seems like hardly a doodle was thrown away and the rare material is used to illustrate the film to brilliant effect. As are the old home movies taken during the time period which showcase the likes of Brad Bird, John Lasseter and a seemingly zombiefied Tim Burton.
The film has a brisk eighty minute runtime, but manages to sandwich in an extraordinary amount of material including a richly deserved tribute to Howard Ashman. The film’s main flaw is that it stops shorts ten minutes too early. It documents the history of the company to its triumph with The Lion King and the corporate crackup that immediately followed. What it doesn’t show is the result of that crack up, namely the slow sad slide back into irrelevance that characterized Disney animation for the next decade until John Lasseter took control of the animation wing. Still the fact that Disney released something about itself whose summary isn’t “We are angels made of sugar and pixie dust” is shocking enough. Expecting them to produce a dénouement consisting of them saying “Boy we sure sucked up the place for awhile.” Is expecting too much.
While Waking Sleeping Beauty might not be perfect, it certainly is fascinating.