Opens Fri., April 28
You don’t expect blunt honesty from a company that routinely defangs everything from the Brothers Grimm to Victor Hugo. And yet the Disney name is attached to Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary that could almost pass for a hit piece. The subject is the renaissance that the animation department, and the company as a whole, underwent in the late-’80s through the mid-’90s, and while the film celebrates the move from pricey bombs like The Black Cauldron to monster hits like The Lion King, it doesn’t look the other way when darker, inside-baseball elements crop up. Which they frequently do, thanks to a group of outsized, egomaniacal execs.
Directionless and in artistic freefall since the 1966 death of Uncle Walt, Disney suddenly found new blood in the appearance of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, two cold businessmen with limited experience in animation. But the real key hire was Broadway lyricist Howard Ashman (and composing partner Alan Menken), who, starting with Oliver and Company, essentially reconceived the Disney ’toons as gawdy Broadway shows, complete with power ballads. Ashman died of AIDS-related complications before seeing the finished Beauty and the Beast, but the shtick he created made the company arguably bigger than it ever had been.
Waking Sleeping Beauty doesn’t mention the artistic (and later financial) decline that began around Pocahontas. (The Princess and the Frog, their sorta-comeback, brought back both cel animation and the Ashman template.)
But the frankness is not the doc’s most striking aspect. That would be its refusal to go the traditional talking-heads route. Director Don Hahn instead gives us actual visuals. As the heads talk, we see home-video footage: the animators goofing off, Eisner and Katzenberg caught being casual, super-secret meetings, even a cameo from a young, mega-frumpy Tim Burton. Even better are the regular appearance of old loose and often frank sketches of events drawn by the animators, which depict gruesome backdoor meetings and exec implosions with wit and vengeance. (For example, a drawing of a Katzenberg freak-out depicts him with a mushroom cloud erupting from his head.) Like the information offered by the impressive, refreshingly honest gallery of interviewees (including the late Roy Disney), it’s the benefit of being an inside job. It’s just surprising that the inside happened to be the Disney HQ.