Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Movie Review: Waking Sleeping Beauty

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fascinating look at Disney animation in the late 80's and early 90's.
Cons: Doesn't quite go far enough
The Bottom Line:
It could go deeper
But for animation fans
This is a must see

The 80's Rebirth of Disney Animation

Being the Disney Animation fan I am, there was no way I could pass up seeing Waking Sleeping Beauty.  True, I was thinking about waiting until it hit DVD, but ultimately I couldn't wait that long.  It was made for people like me who crave the inside scoop on the creation of some of our favorite films.

Waking Sleeping Beauty is a behind the scenes look at the revival of Disney animation that took place during the late 80's and early 90's.  It was directed and narrated by Don Hahn who worked at the studio during that period and worked on such films as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

The movie starts with a brief look at the transition going on during the early 80's.  That serves as background since the film really focuses on the first half of Michael Eisner's reign as CEO of the company.  We get to see him being hired and bringing in Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg to help him run the company.

The main focus is the 10 year stretch of 1984-1994.  For those who aren't up on their Disney animated movie release dates, that stretch starts with the horrid Black Cauldron and concludes with The Lion King.  The period also saw the release of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.  Quite obviously, this was one of the best periods in animation for a long stretch.

I certainly knew bits and pieces of this story, but getting to hear it from the mouths of those who were actually there was fascinating for me.  We get interviews from all the major players as well as many of the big animators that became household names during that time, including people like John Musker and Glen Keane.

This isn't a talking heads movie.  While some new interviews were recorded, we don't see any of them.  Instead, the interviews serve as background narration to the images on the screen.  The interviewee is credited with a word bubble that pops up at the bottom of the screen for a few seconds as they start to talk.

Much of the footage is old home movies taken by the people involved.  The video quality suffers at times as a result, but I didn't care.  We also get to see actors in their voice recording sessions and news footage from the time of the big premiers, theme park events, or news programs made.

As I already said, I found this documentary absolutely fascinating.  It doesn't try to sugarcoat everything.  The problems with the films and the missteps made by everyone involved are discussed.  I knew the broad picture, but I felt I really got to know the details of much of what happened.  I even learned that John Lasseter had worked at Disney during the time.

While I do admire them discussing some of the warts of that time, I felt like the movie stopped short of really telling the whole story.  One of the last events of the film is Jeffrey Katzenberg leaving the studio (ultimately to help start Dreamworks).  While the behind the scenes tension is discussed as a clash of egos, it still feels rather abrupt to me.  And the men involved in that clash of ego seem to go out of their way to avoid pointing fingers at anyone.  Instead, they all half heartedly take the blame for the falling out.

The movie starts with the premier of The Lion King, flashes back to the early 80's, then works it way forward, ending with much of the same footage and narration it started with.  That works to give us a feeling of completion.  Almost.  Don as narrator twice says that the wheels had come off, but I was left wanting to know more.  What happened next to drive to the steep decline of the Disney animated movie?  I think I would have enjoyed learning more about the next six years than I did the ten years we got here.

Both of those complaints are probably more the Disney fanatic talking than the average movie goer.  After all, this is supposed to be about the rebirth of hand drawn animation, and I want to learn about the rebirth and then almost death of the media.  Of course, that would probably take twice as long as the 84 minutes we get here.  While I'd willingly and cheerfully sit through that, how many others would?

Waking Sleeping Beauty has received a very limited release in only a handful of theaters around the country.  I don't know about plans to expand the release.  If you want to see it and are lucky enough to have it nearby, go.  You'll enjoy it.  I'm sure it will hit DVD soon, so if you miss the limited theatrical release, look for that.  Every Disney fan will enjoy this documentary.

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