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Disney’s behind-the-scenes gets a more Behind the Music treatment in Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary about the goings-on at the House That Walt Built between 1984 and 1994. Director Don Hahn narrates with parodic-sounding descriptions like “The wheels were coming off the car” (twice!) and “To an outsider, it looked like the perfect world. But backstage, the tension had reached a peak.” That there’s no slow-mo sequence of a toy Mickey shattering is, frankly, the biggest surprise of the film.
Waking Sleeping Beauty’s chaos isn’t thrilling, it’s just chaotic. Instead of focusing on a central high and low—say, for the latter, the bad blood between CEO Michael Eisner and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg—the doc follows a linear timeline, which means there are a lot of titles, names, hirings, and firings thrown at the viewer. It’s difficult to even summarize what the film is about, but here’s the gist: In 1984, animation was “an art form that was given up for dead.” By 1994, it wasn’t. And some people helped while others hindered the process.
Gripping, right? Hahn’s profiles of Roy E. Disney (Walt’s nephew), Eisner and Katzenberg, unpopular president Peter Schneider, COO Frank Wells, and Howard Ashman, lyricist to some of the studio’s biggest hits, are spliced among overviews of the films being worked on at the time. So instead of getting a solid idea of each man and his contributions—which is nearly impossible in an 85-minute film anyway—you get trivia along with surprisingly dry dissections of blockbusters like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid.
Yes, it’s a little exciting to see black-and-white initial treatments of each, and of staff tweaking lyrics and performing songs. But it’s nearly as smile-inducing to glimpse former Disney employees and current superstars like Tim Burton (hunched over a desk, looking antisocial at best and miserable at worst) and Pixar head John Lasseter. What masterpieces they would go on to create! Oh, but there’s Eisner getting hit in the face with a pie again. On top of that tedium, much of the film uses grainy, home-video-quality footage—which is doubly annoying when it’s occasionally superimposed over crisp, contemporary footage.
Waking Sleeping Beauty does have its touching moments (including the deaths of Wells and Ashman), and if its intention is to convey that Disney is one big dysfunctional family, mission accomplished. But aren’t most workplaces? In the end, you won’t feel all that much better informed about that period of the studio’s history, but you may want to revisit its output. And that’s the film’s biggest sin: It’s a subpar movie about exceptional ones, and you don’t really care who was responsible.