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Wake Up, Wake Up You Sleepyhead…

Disney artist hi-jinks… nasty caricatures of Eisner, Katzenberg and a host of others… not to mention how Walt’s animation studio was dragged, kicking and screaming from old school storytelling into hip ‘n edgy territory; it’s all in Waking Sleeping Beauty, Disney producer Don Hahn’s warts-and-all documentary of the studio’s 1980’s 2D rebirth.

Waking Sleeping Beauty has been playing for a while at the independent cinemas, but I only saw it the day before yesterday, and I’m sure glad I did. (Wish I wasn’t out of town when Peter Schneider was doing Q&A at the film’s NYC premiere.)

In case it hasn’t hit your radar screen yet, the film recounts the rebound of Disney animation from its dark post-Walt days to its Lion King/Beauty and the Beast peak of glory. It’s a warts-and-all look behind the scenes put together by longtime Disney producer Don Hahn. Amazingly it comes from Disney itself, or at least its “Disney Enterprises” division. WSB is way more candid than any in-house company history has any right to be, assembled from home videos shot back in the day by Hahn and John Lasseter, corporate promo tapes of top execs and recent, surprisingly frank audio interviews with folks like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg recounting the rivalry that led to Katzenberg’s departure and the birth of DreamWorks’ Animation.

Take a look at what I like call the “middle-aged mob,” the modern successors to Disney’s “nine old men” in their 1970’s youthful glory (including a dazed-looking Tim Burton). Comparing the greyed-out Clements and Musker narrating storyboard sketches on the DVD of Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland to the shaggy-haired 20-somethings in WSB is one heck of a tempus fugit shock. There’s footage of Katzenberg in goggle-sized glasses, Eisner tearing up at Disney exec Frank Wells’ (the man who kept the Eisner/Katzenberg rivalry in check) funeral, nasty caricatures of big-egoed execs and creatives (Katzenberg as a rhino and a fire-breathing Howard Ashman), a take-down of ‘traitor’ Don Bluth (who deserted the studio in the 1979 with some of its most talented young animators), scads of TV news coverage and even a perfect Chuck Jones Bugs vs. Daffy moment. What’s particularly impressive are the well chosen clips of the perfect moment from the Disney films of the period, not just to name-check the film but to symbolize the studio’s downs (The Black Cauldron) and ups (Beauty and the Beast).

The cold water of Hollywood business-driven reality the Eisner-Katzenberg team splashed on the animation department might have been painful, but it was a wakeup call for a slumbering division that sparked a renaissance at the studio – one that ultimately fell into a new rut of similarly themed, Broadway show-tuned films. Nonetheless Waking Sleeping Beauty is a victory lap for Disney’s 2D animation rebirth – but the film only goes up to the mid 1990’s, just a few years before its near-redeath at the hands of the CGI revolution. For the rest of the story one need to turn to Tony West and Dan Lund’s 2004 documentary Dream On Silly Dreamer recounting Disney’s decision that CGI was the way to go and how 200+ of those 2D animators suddenly found themselves out of work.