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Waking Sleeping Beauty is a rare look into the Walt Disney Animation Studios between the years of 1984 and 1994, when the studio produced such beloved films as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.
In his directorial debut, Don Hahn (producer of The Lion King) narrates the honest story of how Disney animation almost didn’t survive the financial and commercial disappointments of earlier films, including The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and The Fox and the Hound.
The documentary shines a light on Disney’s darkest hours and focuses on the power struggle between studio executives at the time; Roy Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Michael Eisner. Unlike the ‘behind-the-scenes’ specials we are used to seeing from Disney, Waking Sleeping Beauty includes archived footage and home videos featuring commentary from all parties involved and allows the audience to be drawn into the story of a company in turmoil.
Although the film does focus on the feud between the executives as they debated the direction in which the company should move, it also pays its respect to the animators and musicians involved in bringing the Disney’s renaissance films to life. Any Disney fan will appreciate the amazing musical talent of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the inspired duo behind the beloved songs from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. In Waking Sleeping Beauty, we learn of the heartbreaking last months of Howard Ashman’s life before he tragically passed away from complications of AIDS in March 1991, just months before the release of Beauty and the Beast, never having seen the final film (have a pack of tissues close by, you’ll need them).
However, the animators at the time stayed forever optimistic, and even when pushed to the point of developing serious health concerns including anxiety and carpal tunnel syndrome, they managed to keep spirits high around the studio. One example of this is the comical, full scale reenactment of Apocalypse Now. We also get a glimpse of a young Tim Burton chained to a drawing board and a young John Lasseter flipping through old sketches before their initial departure from Disney.
However unglamorous it may have been, Don Hahn stays true to the events of the company’s past and shows how, even through all the adversity, Disney magic was able to shine through and produce some of the greatest animated films of our time.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes