A compelling and informative documentary from director Don Hahn (producer of such films as "Beauty and the Beast"), "Waking Sleeping Beauty" takes a look at the developments at Disney that came together to form the particularly successful time period between 1984-1994. Early on, the film focuses on studio troubles, with the disappointment of "Black Cauldron", which was a disappointment at the box office (although is a good film that I think has gained a wider audience in the years since - still, getting beaten at the box office by "The Care Bears Movie" was probably not fun.)
Seeking a way to turn things around, the studio brought in a new set of executives, including Frank Wells and Michael Eisner. The recent changes - including a mixing of the old guard and new faces at the animation department - and the new changes (including moving the animation department off the lot into a terrible new building) initially made things appear grim. With the animators believing that they had nothing to lose, they spent part of a day using the office to reenact "Apocalypse Now" (footage of which is seen in the documentary.)
While things looked bleak, Peter Schneider's placement as the new management of the animation department started the ball rolling, and "The Great Mouse Detective" was the first result of the new department. Unfortunately, they were beaten to the punch by Steven Spielberg's pairing with former Disney animator Don Bluth, "An American Tail". Still, not discouraged, the animators proceeded on with "Oliver and Company" (which I think is one of the studio's most underappreciated efforts) and then the blockbuster, "Little Mermaid".
From there, we hear more about the live-action success stories and the steps of further revolution, including the introduction of Pixar and new computer technology becoming available. However, with the level of success that started with "Mermaid" (and then swept along "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin" and "Lion King") came phenomenal rewards, massive investment into the department, massive toy sales, long hours, tensions and unexpected problems.
The movie does not dwell on the problems that came with success, but certainly doesn't try to minimize them, either, presenting an honest and straightforward take. The movie as a whole does a very nice job showing both the highs and lows, and the light and the dark of the personalities involved in the studio during the time period. What's really, truly amazing about the film though, is the treasure trove of rare, behind-the-scenes footage that are on display (the film is largely archive footage with a variety of narrators.) Fans of the studio will delight in seeing tons of rare clips of meetings, interviews and other archive material. To the film's credit, all of this archive footage is pulled together in a way that flows smoothly - piecing all of this material together could have been a mess.
I think a fairly good summary of the film is the fact that I fully expected to watch something that felt like it should be an extra on a DVD release, but found a documentary film that deserves to stand on its own.
VIDEO: The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Presentation quality is - as one might expect - quite inconsistent, with the archive footage varying in condition quite a bit throughout the picture. Still, while the footage does have some wear, it is certainly never worn to the point of being distracting. Overall, considering the material, the presentation looks about as good as can be expected.
SOUND: Crisp, clean (but not surprisingly, basic) documentary-style Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation.
EXTRAS: The extras start with an insightful and enjoyable commentary from Don Hahn and producer Peter Schneider. We also get a brief "making of" documentary ("Why Wake Sleeping Beauty?"), "A Reunion" featurette (an interview with long-time friends Kirk Wise and Rob Minkoff, famed Disney directors), "The Artist, The Mountain Climber, The Poet and the Sailor" is a short piece that talks about the people who the film is dedicated to, deleted scenes and three studio tours from different time periods.
Final Thoughts: Overall, "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is a delight, offering an in-depth look at this prime period in Disney animation and those who were involved. The DVD offers fine audio/video quality and a fine helping of supplemental features.