On November 23rd last year, FilmEdge got the opportunity to attend the Hollywood family and friends screening of Don Hahn and Peter Schneider‘s clever and controversial documentary WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, a fond yet hard-hitting celebration of Disney’s golden renaissance of feature animation from 1984 to 1994.

Now that WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY has begun its limited release in Los Angeles and New York, it’s must-see viewing for anyone who has enjoyed the string of animated classics these animators and the studio produced in the past two decades.

THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and THE LION KING redefined the modern American animated feature film and rejuvenated a slumbering art form in the studio where it was invented by Walt Disney half a century before.

What you may not know: this rebirth of animation almost didn’t happen.

Short-sighted corporate budget cuts and a lack of leadership focus nearly scuttled Disney’s entire animation staff, but their future wasn’t erased yet. Director Don Hahn assembles archival video clips and interviews with contemporary comments by the artists, filmmakers and executives who lived this underdog tale. Against all odds, Disney’s own animation legacy survived and thrived to create a new golden era.

In the style of Walt Disney himself, WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY is not a fairy tale at all, but the story of bold creative passion and American innovation which forged artistic triumph in the flames of adversity. While the outcome made millions of moviegoers around the world very happy, the ending of this tale still hasn’t been written.

Disney’s animation team draws up a plan for success in WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTYDon Hahn’s WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY takes an unflinching look at Disney’s greatest decade of animation, filled with the beautiful, glorious artwork of its pencil-to-paper magicians but also focusing on the studio’s own difficulties, warts and all. Its strength as a documentary is that millions of people know how struggle turned to global success, forging an unprecedented empire in entertainment . . . but so few know how this miracle was pulled off. It didn’t happen by magic, unless you count the string animated fairy tale hits which delighted young and old at box offices. Yet such magic was a creative grind, not a cosmic gift.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, Walt Disney Studios had lost sight of their vision in the art of animation it helped create. Walt’s own interest in expensive animated feature films began waning in the 1950s when he invested heavily in television’s power to promote his theme park dreams, and live-action films proved more profitable with less expenditure. In short, Disney animation was the first sector of the studio to lose the leadership of its creative namesake long before Walt himself died, which sent the entire company adrift without aim. By the early 1980s, the entire Disney company was ripe for hostile takeover and dissolution by raiders eager to fracture it and sell the parts for quick profit.

Peter Schneider, Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg help revive Disney animationEnter friendly capital backing and a new regime in corporate leadership: Michael Eisner formerly of Paramount and Frank G. Wells via Warner Brothers. While not quite duplicating the creative/business linkage between Walt and his brother Roy Disney, Eisner and Wells proved a similarly successful team in recognizing the studio’s strengths. Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt, stepped up to champion his uncle’s and father’s legacy and led the animation department, while Eisner picked Jeffrey Katzenberg to head the entire studio. Though opinions differed and priorities sometimes clashed, these four all valued the assets of the studio’s greatest value, and together drew a roadmap back to success driven by what Disney the brand did best: creating animated family film classics. A renewed focus on quality work pleased animators struggling to keep their art form alive, and encouraging results at the box office supported this strategy.

Thinking outside the box and aiming higher, animators like Don Hahn, Glen Keane, John Musker and Ron Clements were teamed via Feature Animation President Peter Schneider with broadway lyricist Howard Ashman to bring songs and soul to animated characters like Ariel the mermaid, Belle and her Beast. Enthusiasm for telling these tales reigned again inside the Disney kingdom, and on-screen their stories captured the imaginations (and dollars) of audiences worldwide, reviving a near-dead art to the heights of celebration and award-winning glory. New filmmakers were birthed from this unprecedented pool of talent including the dark sensibilities of filmmaker Tim Burton and Pixar’s progenitor John Lasseter.

What makes this film so unique and valuable is that every interview, photo and video clip speaks about this golden era from within it as it happened. Hahn and Schneider have assembled an invaluable time capsule of Disney’s expansion of the animated art form, documenting history while it was being made, and preserving the cinematic past for future audiences while they were still living it.

All the more astonishing is WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY’s capacity as a cautionary tale, defining in pen and ink the trials and mistakes of the past to stop others from repeating such scenes of self-destruction. What makes this film so relevant is that its story does not reside solely in the past, for the events told in it ripple across the animation and entertainment world today: this period of Disney’s renewal also gave birth to Pixar’s own wave of computer-animated revolution, and the two nearly became staunch competitors before Schneider helped forge a purchased partnership between them. Disney Studio continues to ride out corporate shakeups with the ouster of Dick Cook and several key executives last year, while leaders like John Lasseter (now Chief Creative Officer of Disney and Pixar animation) preserve the nearly-lost art of traditional hand-drawn animation and advance the technology of CG animation as well.

This tale may be as old as time, but everything old is new again. Don Hahn and Peter Schneider have captured lightning in a bottle by preserving a look back at animation’s rebirth as an art form, yet brilliantly they mix fairy tale endings with corporate intrigue and complexity. If you’ve ever wondered how these artists and producers make such dazzling animated classics, go see WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY and you’ll truly wonder at how these films were born in the first place. You’ll certainly leave the theater with a greater appreciation for these people and their films, and possibly you may never watch an animated film the same way again.

Currently WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY is in limited release in New York and Los Angeles after its March 26th opening — if you live near these areas, go find it and enjoy it now. This revealing documentary of art and heart deserves a wider release so that the millions of Disney animation fans out there can learn what personal devotion on all fronts is required to turn pencil sketches into living dreams at 24 frames per second. FILMEDGE offers our highest recommendations to film lovers of all ages: seek out this superb work and support all those who gave the world such enduring entertainment — their story is just as dramatic and satisfying, and it’s all true.

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