"Waking Sleeping Beauty" (WSB for the rest of this review) is one hell of a home movie. Want to see what a young Tim Burton looked/acted like while crammed into one of Disney's old animator offices, or want to catch tantalizing glimpses of folks like John Lasseter and Glen Keane?
Of course you do. People like Burton, Lasseter and Keane are titans in the animation industry, and the idea of seeing archival footage that features them working at Disney during the studio's infamous fallow period (late seventies through the end of the eighties) made me salivate like one of Pavlov's puppies. Even more promising: Don Hahn (veteran animator, Oscar winner, and home-video-enthusiast) has worked at Disney from the age of twenty, and he was present and filming on all of Disney's "second golden age" features, from Little Mermaid through the Lion King.
It's a shame then, that for this viewer WSB ends up feeling both unfocused and wrongly-focused at the same time. The film spends most of it's running time split between (1) the efforts of Disney Animation to produce relevant (read: "fiscally successful and ripe for ancillary product creation/exploitation") films again following a string of critical and financial disasters and (2) the now-infamous relationship between Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner.
But by splitting the focus (and arguably spending FAR too much time on the Katzenberg/Eisner details - there's nothing that's said that couldn't have been succinctly expressed with a few minutes of voiceover or one judiciously-chosen interview) the film abandons its initial promise. WSB doesn't truly tell you HOW Disney Animation shifted from making clunkers to making new classics. Instead, the film just tells you that it happened.
That sin is compounded by what Hahn DOES choose to share with us. Why are we spending time on Katzenberg and Eisner when there's footage of Howard Ashman (lyricist for Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and most of Aladdin) playing "Under the Sea" for the first time for a group of delighted animators and looking adorably self-conscious in the process? Why do we spend too much time listening to Roy Disney's behind-the-scenes grievances when there's footage of Robin Williams riffing as the Genie in clips that never made it into the finished film?
This pattern repeats itself over and again. Either we're shown the "what" without the "why" or the "how" (Controversial animation figure Don Bluth managed to steal half of Disney's animators away from the studio. We learn that this happened, but not why or how) or we're shown yet-more footage of Eisner playing Cheerful CEO for the cameras or Katzenberg on a couch.
That's not to say that "Waking Sleeping Beauty" isn't worth seeing. If you're a fan of animation in general (as I very much am), or of Disney, or of the specific films from this period, WSB is very much worth a rental, if only to watch as Howard Ashman gives a very specific set of intructions to the voice of Ariel and cements a classic moment in Disney history. But if you're hoping for something deeper, something that focuses on the true creative heart of Disney's animated films - the animators - then you're likely going to be a little disappointed. We see their faces (in truly endearing home-video shots), and we hear a bunch of them say hello, but we never get a sense of who these people are/were, what they did, why they did it, or what the process was.
What we get instead are the reminiscings of one animator and a scattered array of really great moments captured on film. While Don Hahn is warm, engaging and blissfully armed with vintage archival footage, that warmth is overshadowed by two titanic egos who've already had their stories told and told in detail. Katzenberg and Eisner's feud marrs "Waking Sleeping Beauty" just as it seems to have marred Disney's breathtaking Mermaid-to-Lion-King track record.
The Verdict: Rent it.