Thursday 13 June 2013

Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) Or How Mickey Mouse Almost Went On The Dole

2009 was a huge year for animation, where critically acclaimed releases such as 'Up', 'Coraline' and 'The Secret Of Kells' fought for the honour of Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. It's ironic then that one of the years most underrated documentaries explored Disney's triumphant comeback of the early 90s, including the Oscar nominated 'Beauty and the Beast', which is the only hand-drawn animation to date that's received a best picture nod.  

'Waking Sleeping Beauty' was directed by Don Hahn, an executive film producer who worked at the Disney studio from the dark days of the early 1980s. Hahn's narration tells the story of Disney over a decade of triumph and misfortune, which culminated in the unprecedented success of 'The Lion King'. I fricking love Disney at its best so I was really excited to finally watch this film.

Unusually for a documentary, 'Waking Sleeping Beauty' is comprised entirely of archive video clips. The only new material featured is audio interviews with key members of the Magic Kingdom, who worked at Disney during the 80s and 90s. Key to this are the three main executives; Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney, who all fell out at different points regarding the studios output.   

Hahn provides fascinating insights behind the scenes and as you might imagine, everything wasn't as rosy and magical as it appeared from the outside. His inside knowledge reveals huge fall-outs amongst the employees back in the studios darkest times and it's hilarious to see the caricatures that the pissed off illustrators drew of their bosses. 

It's surprising how candid 'Waking Sleeping Beauty' is at times, although I wish the film had delved deeper still. So many fractious relationships are touched upon but I still feel like some more juicy things were held back which could have made for even more addictive viewing. I love that the film is directed by someone who actually worked for Disney at the time, but it's a shame that Hahn still works at the Magic Kingdom. A more objective director could have perhaps revealed more dirt but then would the documentary have the same passion for its subject?

While the pace may be a bit slow at times, there's something almost magical about watching classics such as 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King' being created from behind the scenes. And yes I'm aware of how lame that sounds but if you grew up with these Disney milestones like I did, then 'Waking Sleeping Beauty' will definitely resonate on an emotional level. Just watch Jodi Benson record 'Part Of Your World' in the studio if you don't believe me. 

Benson's collaboration with Howard Ashman is a definite highlight of the movie but unfortunately, no new interviews could be recorded with the legendary songwriter as he died a few months before 'Beauty and the Beast' was released. Moments like this actually reduced me to tears but I wish that there had been more scenes of this type which showed the actual production of these classic films. 

'Waking Sleeping Beauty' finishes like any classic Disney movie - with a happy ending - but that's only because Hahn chose to stop documenting the studio before it's decline in the late 90s. While films such as 'Hercules' and 'Pocahontas' still saw success, later releases like 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' and 'Treasure Planet' performed poorly at the box office, leading to a halt in the production of hand drawn animation at the studio. A brief attempt was made to revive this technique with the release of 'The Princess and the Frog' in 2009, but CGI still won out in terms of box office figures.

'Waking Sleeping Beauty' may not be a riveting watch in the traditional sense but it's a must see for animation fans and anyone who somehow memorised every word of 'Circle of Life' from the age of 6.

What did you think of 'Waking Sleeping Beauty'? Did you feel the film was objective enough in its portrayal of the Magic Kingdom? Was Hahn the best person to direct this project? And kudos to you if you already knew every word to 'Circle of Life'! Let me know what you think by commenting, liking and sharing below.


  1. I'm an avid fan of the Disney theme parks and enjoy the movies, and I really enjoyed this film. I liked Hahn's approach of not doing the "talking head" style and using the audio instead. I think the reason it isn't even tougher is that Disney actually produced this film. The fact that he was even able to delve as far as he did is surprising given the company behind it.

    If you haven't seen it, I'd suggest checking out "Dream on Silly Dreamer". It takes place in 2002 after much of the staff was laid off. It's not produced by Disney and isn't as well-made as "Waking Sleeping Beauty", but I found it to be very interesting.

    1. Yeah to be fair, Hahn did go further with it then I think he would be allowed to.

      "Dream On Silly Dreamer" sounds really interesting thank you. Never heard of it before! I like the idea of looking at that tricky time when hand drawn animation lost its way again.

      Wasn't sure if many people had even seen this film so cheers for your comments!