At some point or another, we’ve all been touched by the Mouse. Disney Animation is a … It’s so iconic, legendary, spectacular, breathtaking, lifechanging, epic; there’s actually not a word in the English language that encapsulates everything the Mouse House Toons truly represent. Get on that shit, Figment! As a child or with a child, we’ve all thoroughly enjoyed a Disney cartoon. And in the 1980s, everything almost went tits up. Waking Sleeping Beauty is three parts home movie and two parts propaganda doc about the revival of Disney’s Animation department during the decade of 1984-1994. What makes me slightly cynical about using that particular timeframe is that it represents more or less the Katzenberg-Eisner-Wells era at Disney, rather than any sort of quality time frame. Disney was still pumping out the shits, but this marked the resurgence of their good name with four musical fairy tales. But the documentary doesn’t shine any sort of alluring light on anything. It’s basically a really decent documentary that you’d expect to see on an anniversary DVD re-release. It’s nostalgic and bitterly wistful with the untimely deaths of two of the major players, but basically it’s an excuse to show the pettiness of Eisner and Katzenberg.
Disney wasn’t doing shit in the animated marketplace in the early 80s. They had just released The Black Cauldron — one of the four “children’s” movies that I can directly point out as the reason where my generation went horribly Cthlulu (the other three are Labyrinth, The Last Unicorn, and The Dark Crystal) — which was a commercial nightmare. Disney lost the mojo, and it looked like the animation department was on the outs. Roy Disney brought in a dream team to try to fix the Mouse House: Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Eisner later brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg, and between the three of them, they would take axes to broomsticks and revamp the entire Disney process. Disney, Eisner, and Katzenberg would play round robin kicking each other in the shins and taking all the credit. Frank Wells stood aside, kept the ship afloat, and was basically a motherfucking saint. And so the movie becomes this uncomfortable mash up of horror stories and bickering about Katzenberg and Eisner, intercut with montages of Disney animation magic, and the occasional sob story about the two only decent people in the entire industry dying tragically.
Disney made four monster flicks during that period of time, all back to back smashes: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. But really, the only thing Disney did to revamp the system was to hire in Howard Ashman — an unparalleled genius lyricist who would take some fables and fairy tales and inject some of the toe-tappinest, jazzy hits ever to be sung by paint and ink. Ashman died of AIDS complications in the early 1990’s, and his legacy was temporarily floated by Tim Rice helping Alan Menken. After that point, Disney progressively made worse and worse 2D animated flicks, culminating in last year’s tragic The Princess and the Frog — which pretty much typifies every fucking thing Disney has possibly done wrong with their animation department. In fact, the only creatively successful move Disney has made in regards to animation was the hostile takeover of Pixar — which they almost suffocated under the fucking mouse ears. And we can all thank Howard the Duck and the erstwhile Mrs. Lucas. (True story: Pixar was originally part of George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, but he had to sell it due to financial strains because of his impending costly divorce and the Heaven’s Quack like failure of Howard the Duck draining all his capital. None of that is in the documentary.)
And that’s kind of the problem with Waking Sleeping Beauty. It’s touching and kind of sweet like the opening credits to the “Wonder Years,” but really, it’s completely unnecessary. Because of legal constraints, the documentary can’t delve into Katzenberg or Eisner’s real sordid horrors, nor does it really pay compliment to just how important Pixar has been in the marketing of the Mouse. It’s wonderful to reminisce about all the great songs — that decade was essentially my formative years, the Hadron Collider of my personality being forged by combining Disney tunes with vulgar stand-up routines by Carlin and Hicks. I still get a catch in my heart whenever I hear any of the jams from those four films. But as for the impact on Disney culture, I felt like I was watching the movie they show the employees at the self-congratulatory Christmas party.