Oh, what simpler times they were when Disney was trotting out movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King.” Those bright, colorful animations, arriving annually like clockwork, defined the late ’80s and early ’90s as much as hair bands and Madonna.
The documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is a behind-the-scenes look at Disney animation during those heady times, a streak from 1984 to 1994 that also produced “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”
Made by the Walt Disney Co. and directed and narrated by longtime Disney producer Don Hahn (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King”), “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is an unabashed bit of navel gazing.
But it’s also a good story and includes more insider intrigue than you might expect. There’s plenty here on the feuding between the Disney executives who presided over the restoration of Disney’s animation pre-eminence: Roy Disney, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
All agreed to interviews for the film and, for the most part, speak candidly – if politely – about their work together.
The focus on the business side of things takes some of the fun out of the film. Certainly, the leadership of these executives was critical, but it’s less riveting than hearing about the creation of Ariel and other indelible characters.
But much of the film does maintain the perspective of the rank-and-file animators. It’s stuffed with grainy home movies of office life on the Disney lot, water cooler griping and – best of all – caricature drawings by the animators of their bosses.
Some of the video was shot by an animator named John Lasseter, who would go on to oversee Pixar and become chief creative officer of Disney animation. A young Tim Burton also makes a cameo.
The segment of the film devoted to Howard Ashman, the musical theater playwright and lyricist recruited to craft the music for “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” is one of the movie’s best. There’s a great joy in seeing him introduce his vision of “Under the Sea,” imagining the musical creatures and tapping his foot to the beat.