No Hollywood studio fetishizes its past as enthusiastically as Disney, so it’s ironic that — as the thoroughly engrossing documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty makes tragically clear — the executives at the top have repeatedly refused to learn from their own history. Part cautionary tale, part fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a cultural institution, Beauty traces Disney’s animation division from its early ’80s low point through its renaissance a decade later — and then follows the senseless, thoroughly ego-driven destruction of the leadership team that helped shepherd classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
The story is interesting enough all by itself, but what really sets Waking Sleeping Beauty apart from your standard documentary fare is the unique behind-the-scenes perspective offered by director Don Hahn and producer Peter Schneider, both of whom worked at Disney during the period covered in the film. Hahn and Schneider know where the bodies are buried, they know the right questions to ask, and they had access to the right people, including warring executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Roy Disney. Blending new interviews with archival footage, it’s essential stuff for animation aficionados, and instantly absorbing for almost anyone else.
The bonus features add further depth to the story, including an audio commentary with Hahn and Schneider that illustrates the affection and respect between the two while further fleshing out the events unfolding onscreen, more than half an hour of deleted scenes, and a touching eulogy to members of the team who died along the way (including Roy Disney, studio exec Frank Wells, and composer Howard Ashman, whose work was instrumental to the success of those late ’80s/early ’90s films).
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