About the Column

For years, Jeff Heimbuch has been writing about Disney. Many of his articles have appeared in Celebrations Magazine. But Jeff has always had a little '626' inside him anxious to come out. Unlike his column's namesake, Stitch, he might not paint the Castle blue, but he will paint the park red with entertaining stories, fascinating insights, and daring ... experiments.

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FROM: The 626 Published Fridays

Review: Waking Sleeping Beauty

Not long ago, Jeff watched Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary about the Disney animation department, for a second time, and found that the film had lost none of its power and that, for a Disney film, it's still startlingly candid.

Every once in awhile, you see a Disney movie that is really special. Now, I'm not saying that every Disney movie doesn't have a unique place in our lives. I enjoy almost every one a little more than the last. However, there are always a few that really touch your heart in such a way that it makes it hard for others to truly understand.

While on the surface it doesn't feature a princess, musical numbers, or a dastardly villain, Waking Sleeping Beauty is the latest Disney film that I really connected with. The film came out last year, but I recently watched it again, and it still had an amazing impact on me. Director Don Hahn and producer Peter Schneider have crafted a wonderful portrait of what life was like as a Disney animator from the early 80s to the mid 90s. Both of them experienced it first hand, so who better to tell this story?

Disney's Ugly Eighties

Disney is known for being notoriously guarded when talking about its internal struggles, so it was refreshing to see this documentary lay it all out on the table, without an ounce of sugar coating over the bad times. Being an animator was tough in the early 80s, as Walt Disney Productions wasn't exactly on the top of their game back then. For a company that was built on the back of strong, animated features, their string of financial flops was taking its toll on business.

The film opens with home video footage of the studio during the 80s, showing off a cast of unique characters that look like they should be in Disney films rather than animating them. No matter how much time we spend with each, all of the animators come off as a wacky, fun group that you definitely wouldn't mind hanging out with. You can tell by their enthusiasm that each knows how incredibly lucky they are to be working at Disney and that they enjoy their jobs.

These rare, behind-the-scenes looks at the animation department may just be the highlights of the entire film. The directors must have felt the same way, because three separate tours are included in the special features section. My personal favorite is a look at a very young AND very confused looking Tim Burton!

As any Disney fan will know, there was major animosity between Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Roy Disney. I won't get into too much detail here, but I will let you know that the film does an amazing job of providing new insight into their trials and tribulations, and will definitely provide some new insights into the subsequent shakeup of the company.

Another fantastic thing the film does is show what a major impact the song writing and composing team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken had on the Walt Disney Company during that time. They both had a significant influence in the direction the films took, bringing the enchantment of the musical animated feature back to Walt Disney Productions.

Documentary Damsels

I mentioned before that this isn't your typical Disney film, but you can still find pieces that fit into the Disney formula. While not exactly a princess, the entire animation department can be seen as damsels in distress, not knowing if they'll have jobs the next day. Some of the musical numbers from the movies of that time provide an interesting insight into what exactly was going on at the studio. As for a villain, you can label Eisner or Katzenberg for that role, depending on the situation.

Hahn, in his directorial debut, makes interesting choices with the interviews. Unlike most documentaries, which show the person speaking on screen about the past, Hahn never shows that footage at all. Instead, he overlays their audio over period stills and archival footage, often matching event with audio. This adds an extra layer of authenticity to the film, allowing us to actually SEE the events unfold before us, rather than just listen to a bunch of talking heads tell us about it.

I really must mention again how there is no sugar coating here at all. Everyone interviewed is extremely candid, especially about topics they were known not to want to speak of before. Having Eisner and Katzenberg actually tell their own stories gives the film an air it otherwise might not have had.

This is probably the most in-depth film we will ever have about what really goes on behind-the-scenes at the Walt Disney Animation department. Not only that, but it's one of the most comprehensive films about movie-making, period. Major kudos to Hahn and Schneider for pulling it off, and to Disney for allowing them to tell this masterpiece as they did.

I can't recommend Waking Sleeping Beauty enough for Disney fans and for fans of animation and film. If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and watch it today.

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