Watching Waking Sleeping Beauty was a deeply personal and emotional experience for me. Not just for my, now infamous, love for Walt Disney Studios and all the wonderful films associated with it, but because the documentary centred on a collection of Disney animated features which came out for the first time when I was a child such as, Basil The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.
Narrated by one of Disney's leading producers, Don Hahn, the film tells the surprisingly chaotic and troubled story of the inner workings and petty politics of Disney during this time of unimaginable commercial success. Having been stuck in an, arguable, rut with features such as The Fox and The Hound and The Black Cauldron flopping at the box office, as well as creative guru Don Bluth shooting off and making his own studio, the 1980s sparked major change within the company.
Through using only archived footage and reflective audio commentary (which is slightly unusual for this medium), the documentary was an utterly fascinating insight and gives these treasured animated features a new found perspective for film enthusiasts, such as myself. Early on, once Michael Eisner, Jeffery Katzenberg and Frank Wells took over there was much dismay and conflict which raged between the corporate end of Disney and the creative, with the countless animators and writers fearing they would be the first to go in a huge shake-up of the company.
The journey was, at times, harsh and painful with the animation studio being beaten until its last breath, from being moved off site, being outdone by Don Bluth's first two - admittedly excellent - features, to being shone up by the first Care Bears movie (a guilty pleasure of mine from childhood I won't lie...). Then suddenly Oliver and Company was made, which wasn't brilliant, but hardly awful and interest peaked slightly. Thankfully the film that came afterwards brought the company back and was something of a masterpiece, The Little Mermaid.
Michael Eisner, Jeffery Katzenberg and Frank Wells came across rather poorly for the most part, especially as their inner boardroom conflicts started to spill out into the public eye. While it was humorous to see the creative likes of Ron Clements, John Muskers, Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale as eager upstarts, wanting to mark their mark on the studio. While there was faint smiles seeing, now, titans of the industry in their early days such as, arguably, the closest modern day equivalent to Walt Disney himself, John Lasseter or the little troubled strange kid in the corner, one Mr Tim Burton.
There was also a deeply emotional core to the telling of this documentary, none more prevalent than in the memories shared on the great and, unfortunately, late Howard Ashman - one half of Disney's creative duo who made some of the most memorable musical number in modern film history. Ashman's last moments as he lay dying in his hospital bed, and his musical partner, Alan Menken said: "Beauty and the Beast is a huge success, who would have thought it?" and Ashman reportedly whispering, "I would have," was particularly heart-wrenching. Regrettably the man didn't live to see the film finished.
Though he died long before this era bloomed into what we all remember it as, the presence of Walt Disney himself loomed over the film constantly like a controlling old father still influencing his children's actions from beyond the grave and the memory of him varied from person to person. Low-level animators treasured his memory like some mythical godlike figure, while his nephew Roy E. Disney seemed to fear straying too far from his uncle's original vision while the new members to the boardroom attempted to change Walt Disney Studio - for better or worse - into something perhaps even Walt would have never thought possible.
Waking Sleeping Beauty is an absorbing and essential documentary for anyone with a passionate interest in Walt Disney Studios, animation or just the film industry in general. Regardless of the convoluted and bitter workings of the company during this prosperous time, Waking Sleeping Beauty serves as a reminder to how a lot of untrusted and inexperienced people brought a magic kingdom back from the brink, which resulted in a collection of some of the greatest films (not just animated) ever seen on the big screen. Wonderful.
Waking Sleeping Beauty is not out in UK cinemas any time soon. Nor is it even available on Region 2 DVD. However I implore everyone to see this film by whatever means possible. Totally worth it.