Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 3, 2010

Waking Sleeping Beauty

The other night my daughter and I saw Waking Sleeping Beauty , a documentary about the years between 1984 and 1994 when, after a string of ho-hum movies, and some people declaring animation was dead, Disney Studios brought out hits like The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. Waking Sleeping Beauty is made up of interviews with old footage taken by creative types enjoying cameras that seemed wonderfully small and light at the time. We see glee and exhaustion, power struggles between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, and Roy E. Disney, clashes over titles and treatments, and a bit of what happens when a roomful of artists are told their work was in the service of money and not creative recognition. The artists express themselves not necessarily in words or actions, but in caricatures that very clearly show their responses to some studio decisions. We are reminded of the inability to predict what will strike a chord: within the studio a lot was invested in Pocahontas, but many were very dubious about The Lion King.

What drew people together was a sense that making animated movies was a way to keep Disney vibrant. While some thought the company might get by on the theme parks, others insisted those could only grow by developing new stories in the studios. And songs. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, having gained fame for Little Shop of Horrors, brought what they learned from Broadway to liven up Beauty and the Beast, which was being written as straight narrative for months before they were brought aboard.

For The Little Mermaid, Howard Ashman came up with the idea to make Ariel’s crab friend Jamaican, and Sebastian sprang to life with unforgettable beats. There’s a clip of Ashman explaining the musical theater tradition of the heroine sitting on rock or tree stump or something and in the third or so song of the show pouring out her soul about her dreams. Ashman fought to keep in Part of Your World after a focus group seemed unimpressed. When Jeffrey Katzenberg threatened to take it out, Ashman said, “I’ll kill you myself if you do.” My daughter gasped at the close call.

We see images of the era, with Patrick Swayze and Elizabeth Taylor wearing criss-crossed red ribbons while handing out Golden Globe awards; we see the empty halls of the hospital where Howard Ashman died of complications from AIDS, not long before life-saving meds became available.

This is a movie for anyone who loves Disney, or even doesn’t, or anyone who wants a look into how the creative process works not with a solitary person but a big group of people. It left me inspired and humming “Under the Sea.”

Because it’s National Poetry Month, here’s a tribute to Howard Ashman: his lyrics introduce so many children to great poetry. (warning: have tissues handy)



  1. Ooh! I must see this movie!

  2. Me too! I am, though sometimes I am careful where I say this, a fan of Disney. This looks fascinating. Thank you.

  3. Oh, I so want to see this documentary. I remember the movies released during that 10-year period in particular because I have a brother who is 14 years younger than I am, and I took him to “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King” (and saw “Aladdin” on a Valentine’s date in college. My date gave me a choice of dinner at a restaurant or “Aladdin.” I picked “Aladdin.”). The poetry of the lyrics added so much heart to these films. I now have “Part of Your World” stuck in my head. 🙂 Happy Easter.

  4. The movie is good just for the snippets of music that took us back, but also for what’s wonderful and harrowing about creativity.

  5. “Part of Your World” is a good song to have stuck in your head! I heard my daughter sing and hum it so many times. Those were good years to grow up in! I love your Aladdin date story!

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