Between 1984 and 1994 the Walt Disney corporation experienced a renaissance in their animated films division, a branch of the corporate behemoth that had come to see live-action films, premium cable, theme parks and merchandising as its reliable cash crops. Up to this point feature-length animated films were increasingly viewed as the expensive monkey cafe being run by a bunch of art school weirdos that no one wanted to deal with. Don Hahn, a long-time animator and producer within that monkey cage makes his documentary directorial debut with Waking Sleeping Beauty, a love note to the craft and mythology of the artisans who toiled on the stories, characters, songs and thousands of hand-painted frames that went into films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.
The first hour is a catalog of grievances about how corporate executive shuffling and box office receipts created ripple effects all the way down to musty Burbank basement the animators were locked inside of day and night. Hahn employs home video footage, thundering musical cues and voiceover that makes for an occasionally bracing mix of sentimentality and paternalism. Grown men gleefully slashing each other’s tires over disagreements about The Great Mouse Detective is a difficult struggle to relate to, which isn’t made an easier by Hahn’s smug retelling. And while the leadership void and overlapping management is understandably frustrating, one really wants to sit down some of these artists for whom authentic creative expression is supposedly priority one and tell them, maybe you shouldn’t have gone to work for a corporate giant founded by a former Nazi that built its brand on celebrating white male American birthright horseshit -- just thinking aloud here.
What is fascinating about Waking Sleeping Beauty is seeing how overarching trends in the culture impacted a hopelessly out of date company bogged down by in-fighting and hamstrung by investors who demanded quarterly growth. In the mid-90s the Walt Disney corporation was a buttoned down, hyper-secretive operation that was obsessed with controlling their employees behavior and “image management” to the nth degree (speaking of, whatever happened to Celebration, FL?) But the sprawl of “entertainment journalism” combined with animation blockbusters created celebrities out of animators eager for recognition -- which quickly eroded the ability to keep a lid on thousands of semi-gruntled employees.
But less than two decades later this, a highly sentimental though ultimately unflattering portrait of the company (one that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the VHS revolution), features dozens of employees happily smack-talking on-camera, a constant stream of (presumably legally cleared) clips from Disney feature films and surreptitiously shot footage from private meetings. The film’s relatively small (by the company’s standards) release is even being managed by Walt Disney’s theatrical release division. Since most of the blame is laid at the feet of specific executives and not dysfunctional workplace culture Waking Sleeping Beauty may have a problem seeing the forest through the trees but it’s a rare glimpse into the Mouse’s insane kingdom.
Waking Sleeping Beauty screens at the Hollywood Theatre October 25th and will be available on dvd November 30th.