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‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ Recalls Disney's Return to Animated Prominence

The revitalization of Disney animation over a 10-year period, culminating in 1994 with the smash hit The Lion King, as well as the subsequent disintegration of the working relationship between executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and the late Roy E. Disney, are the primary subjects of Waking Sleeping Beauty, Don Hahn’s fascinating new documentary that takes us behind the scenes at the Mouse House with remarkable candor.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about his story, told with an impressive wealth of archival footage and frank insider commentary from all the major players involved, is that the rising tensions between Disney’s triumvirate of empire refurbishers never toppled the company’s increasingly successful animations, which also included The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992).

Bruised egos were frequent, rising talents (including a young Tim Burton, Don Bluth and John Lasseter) came and went, but Walt Disney’s entertainment juggernaut, which took a hit to its reputation as Hollywood’s foremost producer of classic cartoons by the time the studio released The Black Cauldron in 1985, enjoyed a surprising rebirth. In that sense, Waking Sleeping Beauty is, to some extent, self-congratulatory. Hahn, who produced Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, seems more inclined to recall the good old days than to focus on increasingly strident office politics.

Yet he doesn’t gloss over them, either, and, happily, neither do Eisner, Katzenberg and Disney, whose appetites for fawning publicity grew in direct correlation to the success of their brand. By the time Katzenberg was hailed as the creative genius behind the company’s renaissance in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, their personal and professional relationships were all but dead.

As much as Waking Sleeping Beauty praises the rejuvenated animation department that saved Disney the embarrassment of seeing its cartoons beaten at the box office by the likes of former employee Bluth’s An American Tail (1986), it is also a tribute to the visionary musicianship of the Oscar-winning songwriting team of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS in 1991 before getting to see a finished cut of Beast.

In both, but particularly Ashman, Hahn sees men every bit as responsible for reigniting the fire in the Mouse’s belly. Watching Ashman in action, frantically coming up with one brilliant idea after another – he was as much a songwriter as a gifted storyteller – it’s hard to argue.