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“Waking Sleeping Beauty” celebrates the Second Golden Age of Disney Feature Animation

“Waking Sleeping Beauty” celebrates the Second Golden Age of Disney Feature Animation

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Given this documentary’s title, it’s kind of ironic that “Waking Sleeping Beauty” got its start the way most of us do when we’re just trying to wake up. Which is with a good, strong cup of coffee.

As director Don Hahn recalls, it was November of 2006. Peter Schneider’s latest project – a stage musical version of Touchstone Pictures’ 1992 hit, “Sister Act” – was being workshopped at the Pasadena Playhouse. And Hahn – because he wanted to be supportive of his old boss’s new efforts – caught a performance of this show.

“I caught up with Peter in the lobby, told him how much I enjoyed the show,” Hahn said. “And he then suggested that I join him for a cup of coffee.”

Peter Schneider, producer of "Waking Sleeping Beauty"
“Waking Sleeping Beauty” producer Peter Schneider.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

You see, Mr. Schneider had an agenda. It wasn’t enough to be working on “Sister Act” (which has since gone on to become this huge success in London). Peter had an idea for a movie. One that would take an honest look back at Walt Disney Animation Studios from 1984 to 1994.Covering that period where the Mouse Factory actually teetered on the brink of closing forever all the way through to the release of WDAS’ biggest hit ever, “The Lion King.”

“I agreed that there were lots of great stories to be told about that time at Disney Feature Animation,” Hahn continued. “But would the Studio actually allow a movie like this to be made? Something that really showed what went on behind-the-scenes during the production of some of Disney’s biggest hits of the 1980s & 1990s?”

As it turns out, Dick Cook – the then-Chairman of Walt Disney Studios – was in a somewhat reflective mood when Don & Peter initially approached him about this project. Having just greenlit production of two other Disney-related documentaries (i.e. “Walt & El Grupo” and “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story”), Cook was amenable to the idea of a film that revealed how “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty & the Beast” and“Aladdin” actually came together.

Characters from Disney's animated version of Beauty and the Beast
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“We warned Dick that this movie wouldn’t steer clear of controversy, that we wouldn’t gloss over all of the personality conflicts that were involved here,” Don remembered. “To his credit, Cook let Peter and I make the movie that we wanted to make.”

Which is "Waking Sleeping Beauty," this wonderfully entertaining yet truthful look back at this time in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Which is all the more insightful given the very powerful men that Hahn & Schneider eventually persuaded to take part in this production: Michael Eisner, the former Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company; Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney’s studio head during the period that “Waking Sleeping Beauty” would be exploring, and Roy E. Disney, chairman of Walt Disney Studios’ animation department.

“As it turns out, Roy was eager to talk about this time. And Jeffrey couldn’t have been more cooperative,” Don stated. “Michael took some persuading. He initially resisted the project, while – at the same time– he’d send us footage that we’d then fold into the film. Like his interview with Diane Sawyer for ’60 Minutes.’ But Michael did eventually come around.”

Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg in publicity stills for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And when you combined Michael Eisner & Jeffrey Katzenberg & Roy E. Disney’s memories along with those of 75 other WDAS veterans – people like John Musker, Ron Clements, Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Roger Allers, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg who were actually in the building while all these amazing animated features were being created – the end result is this movie that celebrates all of the chaos, emotion & passion that goes into creating a classic animated feature.

“We even made this documentary like an animated feature by storyboarding Patrick Pacheco’s interviews with all the participants.And just like he used to do when he ran The Walt Disney Company, when we showed Michael Eisner ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty,’ he then came back to us with some great story notes,” Hahn laughed. “Michael wasn’t looking for us to cut out anything that he’d said and/or remove anything controversial. He just told us how we could eliminate some redundancies. Tighten up our story by cutting 5 to10 minutes out of the running time.”

The end result is this tight, terrifically entertaining 88-minute-long documentary. And what makes “Waking Sleeping Beauty”truly extraordinary is … Well, it’s not one of those talking heads movies. You know? Where all of the participants are interviewed decades after the fact? Placed on camera against a neutral background?

Don Hahn and Peter Schneider working together on the editing of "Waking Sleeping Beauty"
(L to R) Don Hahn and Peter Schneider enjoy some Starbucks as they work on
"Waking Sleeping Beauty." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

No, Don insisted that – while this movie’s voiceovers could be recorded in the present day -- all of the footage that was shown in this documentary had to have been shot during this specific 10 year period in the Company’s history.

“And – as it turns out – there was quite a bit of film from this time. There were the electronic press kits that were created for each of these movies. Plus Randy Cartwright came into work with his 8mm sound camera in the 1980s and – with John Lasseter working as his cameraman – got footage of Glen Keane and Tim Burton as they began their careers at Disney Feature Animation. Even my mother helped out by handing over some of the TV coverage that she’d taped when these movies were initially coming out,” Hahn said.

As a direct result, “Waking Sleeping Beauty” has a sense of immediacy that you rarely find in documentaries that celebrate the film-making process. Schneider & Hahn actually did what they wanted to do with “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” Which is put you in the room while all of these tough creative decisions are being made, as very passionate & opinionated people are coming together – sometimes in conflict – to create many of the most highly successful, best loved animated features of the 1980s &1990s.

Poster of the documentary "Waking Sleeping Beauty"
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

If you’re a film fan, animation enthusiast and/or just a Disney nut,then you really owe it to yourself to catch “Waking Sleeping Beauty”(which goes into limited release in New York, LA, Chicago and San Francisco on March 26th). Seeing this movie is a truly bracing experience. A real eye opener.

You know? Like a good, strong cup of coffee?

For further information on “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” please click on this link.

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  • Yet another great Disney doc available to LIMITED audiences. I'll have to add this to the list along with the Sherman Bros and El Groupo. Why do they do this?

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